Nobody deliberately builds a product that’s hard to use

There are undoubtedly some pretty hard to use products about. Computers seem particularly troublesome when it comes to making things easy to use, whether a desktop PC or in the guise of some consumer electronics like a PVR. There might actually be people deliberately designing products that are difficult to use (don’t ever hire me to write software to control lifts because impatient button pressing would definitely be taken in to account… mwahahaha!) but the reality is that it’s tough to make something easy to use. It’s even harder to modify or extend an existing product consistently.

Visual design can actually be a distraction when it comes to making a system easy to use. Pixel perfect placement of a button might make a big difference to the look of a product, but it’s how the button fits with your conceptual model of that product that will dictate how easy it is to use. (The Psychology of Everyday Things has a wonderful description of a set of doors that look great, but are difficult to use. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to get doors right!) User modeling can help by focusing the design on the needs of users, rather than letting the design be dictated by the underlaying technology.

I’ve been having a go at creating a few simple user models since starting my new job and I’m starting to get the hang of it. Luckily help is at hand in the form of a user modeling series on developerWorks:

Is this the beginning of the end for products that are hard to use?

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7 thoughts on “Nobody deliberately builds a product that’s hard to use

  1. Can I use your blog post as an endorsement for people to hire more information architects, usability and user experience people, like myself?!

    There’s so many things I love about what I do, but I think the best part is working together with talented people to make things look as well as function wonderfully. I can’t do what designers do, or programmers can do, but I can put things together in a way that makes sense for the user. You absolutely need all those parts to form the whole product, software, website, (insert whatever else here). User Experience is all around us, unfortunately we usually don’t notice it’s broken until it’s too late.

  2. If it helps at, you’re more than welcome!

    You’ve hit the nail on the head that you have to combine the function, design and user experience to be successful.

    Do you think that user modeling is something that has the potential to help people with the relevant skills collaborate more easily?

  3. The beginning of the end for products that are hard to use? Sadly, no way! Well, at least not until user experience experts are seen as a core part of the development team, and the development team themselves are educated in the ways of the user! And lose ‘developerthink’ – the belief that the customer intuitively knows how to use a product because they ‘know’ what the developer knows and ‘thinks’ like the developer.
    It’s harsh to say, and not true of every development team I’m sure, but from what I’ve seen working both as part of the development team and as a usability expert, only when a really big usability hole is discovered, are the user experience experts taken seriously. Once a ‘plaster’ has been applied to solve that problem, usability again takes second place to functionality. Until the next problem.. and so on.
    In fact, in some cases the wrong focus on usability can cause problems, and lead to the reputation usability has for being expensive and just about adding ‘icing’ to a product. For example, an obsession about the pixel location of a button!

  4. Ah, well, yes, I wasn’t expecting an overnight change :)

    It might be easier for user experience experts to be a core part of the development team if there was a common language that developers, designers and user experience experts could all communicate with.

    Despite developerthink, I don’t think developers are deliberately trying to make things hard to use, hence the title of the post. In fact, attempts to help make things easier can backfire because we aren’t usability experts.

    I remember one example from a product you’re familiar with in particular. A line item to support time travel* was added to the development plan to make the out of box experience simpler but along the way the extra stuff needed for time travel actually making things more confusing, not less! The reasons for adding time travel in the first place seemed to have been forgotten. It might have been easier to keep the bigger picture in focus with a user model which everyone could understand.

    * Names changed to protect the innocent! Time travel would of course be extremely simple to use!

  5. I’m not sure if user modeling alone will help people collaborate more effectively… user modeling is only one tool in the toolbox (we really have so many to choose from these days).

    I think it really takes an understanding of what each individual brings to the team or project (including the UX people, the designers, the developers, the project managers, the users and the client even). I see it as a puzzle, each person adds a unique piece to it, but if one piece is missing you don’t get the whole picture either.

    Most of my experience in this area is has been defeating, but my frustrations have come from no respect from the part of the designers on my projects, not the developers… although despite that, I still enjoyed the work enough to want to continue doing it. You learn, you grow. :)

  6. User modeling is certainly not a silver bullet and I guess no tool is going to make people want to collaborate in the first place. I’m also sure that usability is not unique in being full of frustrations- where would the fun be in achieving things if everything was easy! (Talking of which, I haven’t prodded anyone about accessible touch screens lately… :)

    Out of interest, what are your favourite tools in your toolbox Heidi?

  7. Since I’m not currently working in this field at the moment I don’t have a list of favorites quite yet… Things have changed since I’ve been doing this work last (which has been roughly 4-5 years now). I have to say that I was really impressed at the depth of methods and tools presented at this past IA Summit though. Boxes and Arrows is a pretty good resource if you’re interested in this sort of thing. Podcasts from the IA Summit presentations are up here as well as on SlideShare.

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