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There is No "You" in Usability

Published: March 7, 2008

Author: David Rodnitzky

I recently bought a new computer that came with Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Office 2007. Upon first opening my copy of Excel, I was shocked to find that many of the features I had come to know and love were gone. It seemingly took hours to figure out simple tasks like saving a file or creating a pivot table.

Apparently, I am not alone in being confused by Microsoft’s latest technical advances. In talking to other brave new users of 2007, I heard the same cries for help. So what does this mean – does it mean that the people at MSFT that designed Office (and Vista) are colossal idiots? Does it mean that my friends and I are unable to adapt to new and better things? Or perhaps all of this would be moot if I just became more hip and switched to an iMac?

My sense is that all of these answers are partly correct. The biggest lesson I take from this experience is that usability simply isn’t logical; usability is subjective and is based entirely on the opinions of the people using your product. Thus, even if your users are ‘stupid’ or ‘backward’, you must still create user experiences that delight them, however distasteful this might be for your crack graphic design staff.

Now that I’ve been using Office 2007 for a few months, I’m starting to get used to it, and I’ve even found some features that are definitely a big step up from Office 2000. Indeed, PowerPoint is about 50 times better with 2007 than it ever has been (and I know, my Mac-freak friends, it was copied from some similar Apple program . . .). I suspect that by this time next year, I’ll be dismissing Office 2000 much in the same way that I eventually dismissed DOS in favor of Windows (yes, I am that old).

And I suppose in the world of software, user resistance to change comes with the territory. Microsoft has to continue to innovate, and innovation usually means changing the status quo, and changing the status quo means upsetting all those people who are happy with it and don’t need a “better mousetrap.”

But Microsoft and many other companies have probably learned over the years that the risks of not upsetting the apple cart with innovation are just as great. Imagine, for example, if Google had never changed anything to their AdWords program. You’d see plenty of made for AdSense spam, duplicate ads from the same companies, trademark infringing ads, and probably ongoing declines in click-through-rate. And, like Microsoft, Google continually upsets their base every time they make a change to AdWords, but most of these changes seem to paid off in the long run.

When it comes to Web sites, however, I do think the lesson that ‘innovation is necessary, even if it upsets some users’ does not apply so cleanly. As marketers, our job is to drive conversions for our companies. Anything you add to your site that doesn’t drive conversions (either in the immediate term or from a lifetime value perspective) is unnecessary and shouldn’t be there.

For example, let’s say your graphic designer really wants to employ a full AJAX functionality on your landing pages. He argues that this is the slickest way to display results these days and that ‘everyone is doing it.’ Your clientele, however, happens to be middle-aged people who just got dial up access from AOL last month. Any technology that is more complicated than a Craigslist page is likely to confuse them and make them abandon your site. In this case, innovation could kill your company. Sure, you might get laughed at when you go a trade show and your competitors see your “1998” Web site, but you’ll laugh a lot more when your conversion rates stay strong as your creative competition drops into obscurity.

Of course, none of this should prevent you from testing, testing, and testing different ideas. But let your customers tell you which ideas work, rather than choosing the idea that is the latest craze.

Apple will probably never convert me from my PC. Why? Because the usability of a PC and Windows is just what I have grown up on, and even if the Apple usability is “in theory” better than a PC, from my perspective, it’s as foreign as Swahili. Logical? Of course not. A valid user perspective – absolutely.

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