Keep it simple, stupid!

This week we lost a guy who knew how to make things usable. Rest in peace, Steve! A day before, on Tuesday, we had Jerome Turner from Birmingham State University’s User Design Lab talking to us how to make things usable and how to perform usability testing. That talk was very interesting and insightful, so no wonder that the Q&A lasted for an hour.

Which one would you rather use? (photo from http://uxblogging.posterous.com/)

The main idea behind usability design is to make your service easy to understand, intuitive to use and make sure that all functionality is where the user needs them. There is a reason why in 90% of households the garbage can is just under the sink – this is the place where you need it most often. It is different here in Birmingham Science Park Aston, where the garbage can is some three meters from the sink. At the end of each day, the kitchen floor between the sink and the garbage can looks like Hansel and Gretel had walked a marathon there..

Another very important consideration about usability is making it simple. Sometimes less is really more. Unfortunately this is something that a lot of designers do not understand. Just before leaving Estonia, I was shown a house where every single light had to be turned on by a remote control, there were no “manual” switches. There were some 7-8 rooms in that house so it had also 7-8 remote controls. In theory this sounds great – you can adjust brightness and turn the light on/off without even having to walk to the door. Unfortunately, the reality is not that pleasent. In one room, the person showing me the room had to search for the remote control for a minute before she was able to turn the light on. In another room, she did not manage to find that remote control at all. She comforted me by saying: “Don’t worry, I know it is somewhere here”. Unfortunately, her condolence did not make me see any better in the dark. Do you really need remote controls to adjust lights in your apartment? Even if you manage to be tidy enough to keep all these remote controls at constant places, I can imagine all the hassle when the batteries run empty. And besides – where would this “constant place” for a remote control be? My bet is that it is near the door, just where the light switch is.

I pressed a wrong button once in Japan. What happened? Ask me in person.:)

Another good example here is the microwave oven we have at our house in Birmingham. The oven has 17 buttons on it. C’mon, 17 buttons?! It’s not a nuclear power station, it’s a microwave! The first couple of times I used it, I had to ask my landlord to show me how it works. Now when I use it, I press four buttons (instead of one) to set the time and there it goes! I never used the other 13 buttons.

This is often the case. We are overwhelmed with features we never use but which make the whole process of using the product so much more confusing and unpleasant. Now, please take a minute to think, where could you make it easier for your customer to use your product or service. Believe me, she will be happy you did.

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