Usability vs. Design

While the conflict between usability and design has long been fought and discussed, every now and again a healthy reminder is necessary to keep the balance in check. Simply put, designers typically want to make things look pretty. Usability experts want to make things intuitive and easy to understand. Somewhere in the middle exists the right formula for designing websites, applications, and advertisements. All too often, however, designers (especially young designers proving their worth) go overboard making things very pretty without thinking about usability. This happened twice in the last week, which made me think it was time to remind people that both good design and an eye toward usability are necessary for a design to work.

I was on a site yesterday when one of the “Tell us how we are doing” survey lead-ins popped up. I am used to seeing these on retail sites, and this site in particular was poorly designed so I was actually interested in taking the survey. The pop-up lead-in was a square graphic that said, “Tell us how we are doing. Click HERE to take our survey.” The pop-up started on the right side of the screen and moved across the screen to the left. Yes, it was a moving target asking me to click it. Maybe they don’t want anyone to take the survey?

Clearly, no usability expert ever said to them, “If you want someone to click something, don’t make the small clickable region something that perpetually moves around the screen.” It was like a mouse chasing a moving piece of cheese. Interactive design needs to take into account how the element is used and interacted with, not just how it looks.

It’s not limited to interactive design. Even traditional ads need to think about how they are being seen. On Fire Island this summer (a summer vacation area with no cars or streets, only walkways), there are hundreds of posters stapled onto telephone poles that tell everyone what is going on that weekend. Each individual poster is beautifully designed. But there is one major issue. Some of them are designed with monochromatic color palettes and have a lot going on. They look chic. If you were sitting and reading the posters, that would be fine. They are pleasing to the eye and all the information for the event is visible. A lot of thought was put into these posters.

But on Fire Island, people see these posters in their peripheral vision as they are walking down the boardwalks. The posters need to be designed the way billboards are designed: with the assumption that the viewer has a maximum of three seconds to see it. Overly designed, busy posters might be pretty but they aren’t very effective in this “billboard” sense.

I run a piano bar on Fire Island (it’s my moonlighting job). After weeks of no one knowing there was a piano bar (even though these pretty signs were everywhere), I made a few simple signs myself and posted them.

They were simple, undesigned 8.5″x11″ pieces of white paper that simply said, in bold, black letters, “PIANO BAR TONIGHT @ 10pm” and gave the location. That night, the bar was filled and I (of course) did market research and asked how people knew about the event. Zero percent of people saw the “real” posters, and two-thirds of the room had seen my makeshift posters. The rest heard the piano while walking by.

While my posters erred on the side of usability and not design (I am not a designer), so do sites like Craigslist or Google. They are not pretty. But they are highly usable and effective.

Designs always live in a context, and that context always has a usability factor to it. Forget that, and while you might have the prettiest design on the block, it might also be the least effective.

Until next time…


Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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