November 14 has been named World Usability Day, in an effort to promote the value of usability engineering, user-centered design and every user’s right to ask for things that work better.
The last few decades have ushered in a more rapid advancement in technology than ever before in history. Engineers have been able to make computers and other electronic devices smaller, faster, smarter, and more feature rich every year.
The high tech community around the world has adapted quickly to new technology, learning complex computer languages, new manufacturing techniques and God only knows what else in order to drive the engine of technology forward faster and faster.
The postwar ideal of technological advancement may have been to make life easier for us, but I think now it is more designed to grow the economy, fueled by consumer’s necessity to upgrade to new models of all their gadgets annually. Besides that, we are all fascinated by what is possible, eagerly awaiting the next shiny toy that is better than the ones that came before.
Just look at websites, computers, digital cameras, video game consoles, TVs, and cell phones made just 5 or 10 years ago…that’s right, they’re dead to you now. Or maybe not. I think the high tech world has been so excited about all that is possible, it has maybe forgotten that a lot of people are being left in the dust.
Not everyone can be expected to learn, understand, and navigate their way through a wide range of new technology on a continuing basis. The market share of all tech related products and services is ultimately limited by this factor. My grandmother, for example, purchased a VCR back in the 80s, and she NEVER learned how to use it. I admit, she is an extreme exception, but I think a lot of people just don’t feel comfortable with technology and have trouble integrating it into their lives the way others have.
This is where usability engineering and user-centered design comes in. Usability professionals attempt to fill in what engineers often leave out. Ok great, you made the world’s most advanced “widget,” but is it easy to use? Can anyone pick one up and understand how it should be used without reading a hefty manual that is just a bunch of techno babble anyway?
Usability is about intuitive design, with human brains and bodies in mind. User-centered design should not assume its users are all cyborgs (like most teenagers today). The most advanced technology should still be simple to use by anyone. The next great engineering feats will be super advanced gadgets that are as easy to grasp as a frying pan or a rubber ball.