Usability is Dead, it’s the Experience or Nothing


Enter the Machine - Whiteman Park 2010

What happens when the usability of a system is bad, can the overall (user) experience of the system save the day?

How important really is usability to the big picture.

During a recent project I had the opportunity to observe (in an ethnographic capacity) people using a system that had an unending list of shortcomings.

In fact I still haven’t really found anything the system did well. Yes it was a UX horror story.

The people using the system where amazing, they had taken this poorly designed and contrived system and turned it into a workable, functioning, and productive series of procedures and sometimes supplementary systems.

They had worked with the bad system.   Seen the issues, studied them, learnt the system, coped with the shortcomings. They had just made the best over time of a very bad unproductive system.  They had studied and learnt the system despite the bad usability present.

Bad Usability Rules

This got me thinking.  We all see very bad usability examples around us all the time.  Things that you know should never have occurred.  We put up with them and move on.

Surely there are enough usability people in the web industry (and beyond) to fix all these issues?

Well it seems there isn’t.

There is barely enough designers and developers to really keep up with the demanded.   Even if we train development teams in the art of usability we will still be behind the eight ball on this one on the cost verses demand.

Bad usability is so entrenched in some places that it’s doing to take generations to get over it at this rate.

Jakob Nielsen tends to think that Usability on the web is getting better.   Maybe it is, or maybe we are just getting better at dealing with it.

Enter the Uber-Adaptable

However let’s just put the possibility of fixing this bad usability aside for a moment.

Consider the human condition, as humans we are extremely adaptable. Just like the team detailed above we learn and work around bad systems.

Overtime the more systems a person is exposed to, the more jobs they have dealing with bad usability, will over time make them more adaptable to using these poorly designed systems.

We often talk about people learning systems in UX circles, but do we consider the longer-term career wide exposure to poor systems and bad usability has on people.  Does it build better users.

Maybe we are coming to that point, the point where people are now uber-adaptable.

With over 30+ years using personal computing resources bringing with it generations that have know nothing but 100’s of applications and badly designed web sites.  Have we come to the point where usability is no longer a major factor?

Now more than ever before we are just working out the system’s issue and getting on with the task at hand. Working around the bad usability.

The Experience Remains

Now I’m not saying we abandon designing systems and sites with a good degree of usability, far from it.

However let’s consider what makes these bad systems work.

In general I had found it’s the supplementary add-ons people contribute to systems that make them work, that make the experience at least tolerable.

People tend to want to work in environments that are for at least some aspects pleasurable and they alter the environment to suit this goal.

As you know usability is but a component of the overall user experience.    Where the usability is the functionality of the ease of use of system.  The (user) experience is the emotive and overall feeling, perception, the sum of all the interactions or events.

It’s possible to have a system with a bad usability, but still give a positive experience, mainly due to the supplimentary items overriding the negative aspect of the uasbility.

Usability or the Experience?

It comes down to if you can’t fix the usability,  you should at least be looking at the bigger picture and making the overall experience a good one.

After all as people adapt to the bad usability, that is writhe, all that is left when usability dies will be the overall experience.

If the experience is bad… people will just move on.

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