Is Usability Dead? : One Practitioner’s Perspective

The question of whether or not task-based Usability is still relevant and important in the industry is one which has come to mind frequently over the last few years. To understand, here’s a little context…

When I started in the industry a dozen years ago, myself and most of my colleagues had titles like Usability Engineer or Usability Specialist. Some of you might remember that before we had UXPA, we had the Usability Professionals Association. Indeed, Usability evaluations and Usability testing were among the core methods and research activities incorporated into hardware, software and web development processes across a range of companies and product–types.

The goal was clear, the methods were sound, the outputs were straightforward.

The goal was clear and simple – make products easier, more efficient, and more satisfying to use. Our methods were sound – define representative tasks or scenarios in the interface, either run participants through these, or conduct expert evaluations of them. The outputs were straightforward – identify usability issues and provide recommendations for design changes to mitigate or eliminate the issues.

Every couple of years, we see new methods, approaches or frameworks emerge that capture the attention of the product design and development community. User Experience emerged as an umbrella to unite disciplines such as usability, visual design, interaction design, accessibility and information architecture. Methods arose with arguably more cachet and panache than usability testing – think Insights Research, Ethnographies, Design Research, Affinity Mapping, Customer Journeys and so on. Job postings for “Usability…X…” waned, replaced with titles such as User Experience Architect, User Researcher, UX Design Engineer.

Which brings us back to the question – is Usability dead?

A few weeks back, I attended the Enterprise UX Conference hosted by Rackspace in San Antonio, Texas. It was a great event featuring speakers who are true thought leaders with histories of driving better designs and user experiences in a range of industries and verticals. I don’t think I heard the term “usability” mentioned once in any of the talks. However, when walking the halls, speaking to colleagues, and overhearing cross-talk and chatter, I was struck by how many folks were still talking about Usability. Designers are selecting their prototyping tools with usability testing in mind. Product owners are building usability activities into their development cycles. Usability is certainly not dead!

Usability might not generate revolutionary designs, but it can ensure that your next big idea doesn’t fall flat.

You wouldn’t launch a new product or interface without Q/A testing – nor should you release a product without Usability Testing. Compared to other methods, Usability Testing is one of the most efficient and effective methods for ensuring that your product or interface will meet the needs and expectations of your users. Usability may not be the ideal method for generating revolutionary products or interfaces, but I would argue that it is the best method for ensuring that your next big idea doesn’t fall flat – that it is, as the name implies, actually Usable. With Usability testing, you can:

  • Rapidly iterate your design – a study can be executed in as little as one day
  • Produce concrete and tangible results efficiently and with confidence – identifying as many as 85% of potential issues with as few as 5-6 participants
  • Reduce support costs – eliminate issues in your design that would lead users to contact support
  • Prepare customer support – if issues can’t be resolved, you can still arm your customer and technical support teams with knowledge of what types of questions to expect

It has been 23 years since Jakob Nielsen published his book, “Usability Engineering”, which helped usher usability practices into the mainstream. Technologies, interfaces, products and the design and development landscape has changed in the intervening years – “sexier” methods and design approaches have come and gone – Usability is here to stay!