Yo! Usability

This is a thought piece to help explain what I am calling ‘Yo! Usability’. To illustrate it, let’s design a restaurant. You might be thinking ‘Okay, we need chefs, tables, chairs, waiters and waitresses…’ because that’s what anyone imagines when they hear the word ‘restaurant’. After that we might get creative and think up some funky outfits for our staff to wear, unique art to hang on the walls or novelty bill-holders. Congratulations, you’ve got a restaurant. Now let’s try designing a ‘dining experience’ and look at the process solely from the user’s point of view. So we shall do some user research to find out what they want. Just for fun let’s ask them the classic ‘W’s (leaving out ‘why’ and ‘who’, although they would be useful for market research): What: Food; When: Now; Where: Here, in a comfortable chair; (W)How: With a completely free choice of type and quantity. Sound unreasonable? The solution doesn’t think so: Solution: Prepare some food and then put it on a massive conveyor belt that runs by all tables in a continuous line, and let diners pick up whatever they like the look of, on colour coded plates which indicate cost. Place the chefs on the inside of the conveyor belt so they can put food on it easily, and also gauge the demand so that if it rises, so shall the supply. Problem solved. The more we probe into the diner’s wants and needs the more we can see that the traditional waitering system is essentially a compromise. At some point in restaurant history there must have been a conflict between the diner’s wants and the following limitations:

  1. Food takes time to cook;
  2. The food needs to be transported to the table;
  3. The restaurant needs to keep track of how much it all costs.

Thus the system of ordering food from a menu and waiting for it to be cooked and brought to you was born. This is a good system, don’t get me wrong, but in this context it is still a compromise. What the conveyor belt inventor did was to satisfy the user’s wants, and then work out the practicalities. Without this type of thinking, the solution may never have been reached. Furthermore, the best way to arrive at the solution is to ask the user what they want. Yet you can’t simply ask the user to solve the problem entirely. If you asked a diner to design a restaurant, they would be unlikely to come up with the conveyor belt, even if the concept appears somewhere on the periphery of their consciousness. They are more likely to say the same as everyone else, being biased by the same assumptions. Yet when you show them the conveyor belt solution, they love it! So what’s my point? Well, limitations, tradition, and often downright common sense get in the way of innovation. To get the best out of usability, it shouldn’t be tied down with unnecessary limitations before you design a system. Otherwise you just might miss an inventive solution. Further Reading: The Problem is that we do not Understand the Problem