Are humans usable?

After all, usability really just means that making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing - whether it's a website, a fighter jet, or a revolving door - for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.

- Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think, 2000

Initial Thoughts

There are so many quotes and definitions as to what Usability is and guidelines to make the products and technology we use ‘usable’ but what about humans, are we usable? On first examination you would probably say that humans are profoundly unusable. We are emotional, unpredictable, varying in intelligence and capabilities and notoriously difficult to reprogram and change.  We don’t always accomplish the tasks we should do, or are focused on what should be done and we are not always easy to interact with. So if humans could be compared to technology it would be fair to say that the human is profoundly unusable and would need some serious usability work? There are so many things that we strive to make’ usable’ because they do not fit within what we see as our realm of capability, or ‘ease of use’, but could it be that we are unusable because we do not all fit within the same boundaries and abide by the same standards and guidelines. So what makes us able to say what is usable and what is not? Is a person who decides to take a different path in life and to step outside the ‘social norms’ unusable and the human that conforms to social norms and ethics ‘usable’. Or is it the rules and standards of society which are unusable? The human being is amazingly versatile and complicated and yet still drives itself to fit into the surroundings. There is an internal need to be accepted and to fit within social boundaries which often do not allow for deviation from the ‘norm’. Does the desire to conform to social standards make society more and more unusable because the human has to continually change to avoid frustration with the standards which have been set? Or is human flexibility making society unusable because it is continually pushing the boundaries and adapting. If a website or product is unusable then we either change it to make it usable, or in many cases as humans we adapt to it and make do; similar to society. There are many things that we experience and live with everyday within society which are unusable and cause frustration, yet we as humans adapt to them and ‘make do’. It could be said that humans are usable because they are adaptable, flexible and able to live within a society which has restrictions and standards which are not always accessible and usable. If this is the case then may be that is why currently many approach technology and product development and design with the idea that humans will adapt and eventually ignore frustrations, product idiosyncrasies and live with it. Just like in society.

Do we live in a usable society?

Many would believe our society is usable in that we have technology at our fingertips, the ability to visit anywhere in the world if we so desire and yet there are still barriers and boundaries to which we have to abide by.  Making something usable is of direct benefit to us, so why are there so many things within society which are complicated and cause difficulties in our everyday lives. Why are we not applying the same principles to society that we apply to technology and products that we build and use? Is society so fixed that there is no room for change and improvement to support the individual user. Is there a way to improve the way in which humans currently live, work and interact within society; can society be made more usable. When we work towards making the technology and products we use more ‘usable’  we use standards and guidelines, examine the target audience and gather their responses and use that to help support the design or redesign of a product or piece of technology. Social structures are extremely difficult to influence and change and so could this be one of the causes of stress, frustration and the feeling of not being able to ‘fit in’ to society and complete the tasks we need to.

What about usability?

Usability is already used as a way of improving the interaction humans have with products and technology so why not utilise these concepts and understanding to re-evaluate the way in which our society functions. The examination of what causes frustration and what stops us completing tasks or reaching our goals would be extremely enlightening. Our feelings have a strong influence on our perceptions and our ability to interact with products and our social environment. Using observations, interviews and variations on other usability techniques could help us to evaluate human interactions with society and could possibly help to identify where society is currently not supportive and usable. Society seems to be structured to try and get humans to work towards a common goal but as individuals we are generally working towards individual goals and satisfying individual needs. Finding out how and why humans ‘make do’ with and ‘fudge’ things to ensure their task is completed within their everyday existence would provide an excellent insight in to how flexible we really are and how we internally deal with societies inconsistencies and foibles.  This does present the idea that society is not in effect supporting the needs of the individual user. Just as a poorly designed web site can lead a user in the wrong direction, cause frustration and not allow a task to be completed; society appears to be guilty of the same things. Is it any wonder that most technology is so unusable!  If we can strive towards humanising technology maybe this will also help to humanise society.  On realisation is it the human which is usable and the society that the human lives in is unusable? Society should be usable, accessible and enjoyable just like technology.

Further Reading

Can we help?

UX Research is at the very heart of what we do and a key component in any work we deliver. Getting the research right at the start of your project will ensure that your project will run smoothly and meet the needs of your customers. 

If you would like to speak to us about how we can help you with your UX research then please do not hesitate to give us a call 44 (0) 117 929 7333 or submit this short form. in the meantime please take a look at our UX research services.