The Task of Usability

“Good user interface focuses on the essentials. It is unobtrusive and long-lasting in design. The basic prerequisite for this is the reduction in the complexity of functionality”. These lines, which I wrote in one of my recent blogs posts, have often been on my mind during the last few weeks. Furthermore — or perhaps for this very reason — I constantly encounter this line of argument again and again.

But what exactly is behind the concept ‘reduction in functionality?’ The most important aspect is providing the user with complex technical matters in a convenient and easily-understood manner. The products and applications which we come across at work or in our daily life are becoming ever more complex with each version. The task of usability is thus to translate this rise in complexity into simplicity. This process could perhaps be described as the creation of a parellel universe; on one hand, we are dealing with complex technical features, which, on the other hand, are activated by deliberately simple actions.

Simplicity becomes Reality

If all functions and possibilites are shown at the same time, then the user can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Were I to compare, for example, my TV set-top box with a modern remote control, the difference is immediately apparent.

The picture clearly shows which product comes out on top in usability. Namely, the product whose own capacities take a back seat, and instead puts the user (and thus the user-friendliness) in the foreground.

If I give the user three different options to adjust the volume, this means that there are two unnecessary alternatives. The narrower the path is, the clearer the user interfaces becomes.

Usability Predetermines the Path

A further point which speaks in favour of a clearly-defined path: the user has a goal in mind, which he wants to quickly and easily achieve. If he comes to a fork in the road, at which he must reflect and decide, a hurdle automatically arises between the user and the goal. Should this continue to happen, the user can be led off the track altogether.

It is therefore all the more important to focus on unambiguous goals during the user experience process. What does the user want? That his requests are realised easily, with little effort and few clicks.

Words Show the Way

During the login process, I often come across two buttons. One of these is identified as ‘sign up’, and the other is marked with ‘sign in’. Do I really want to give my customers or potential customers this choice? How are the two different processes identifiable? Precisely outlined wording leads to a coherent understanding and a happy customer.

If the customer understands at first glance what each button does, trust is built up immediately, and he pushes the corresponding button without hesitation. Therefore the choice of a suitable text as well as user interface are required features of good usability.

Visual Support

We have all at some point allowed ourselves to be guided by signage, be it at a park or in a hospital. However, following signage that leads us correctly and without posing questions is — from my own experience — less likely to occur. For example, I have often been in the situation wherein I could not determine in exactly which direction an arrow was pointing.

If I transfer these regularities from a system of signage to a user interface, I meet similar challenges, and also possible solutions. In the interactive world, I need consistent, logical shapes and colours, just as in the real world. From this it follows that an arrow directing us to the right, for example, should always look the same on each screen or each button.

Suitable for Everyone

An interactive word or colour system is perceived just as it is in the real world. That is to say, there are people who are able to remember colours better; others who are better with the appearance of letters and words, and other who rely on specific sounds. Therefore, a good and meaningful mixture which addresses all of these senses is the best way. If the user is clearly guided, step by step, throughout the process, and, with these methods, is taught how the system works, then it should be easy to meet the customer’s needs.

The Task of the Product

The product or the application consists not only of the case and the technology, but also, or even especially, of the operation. The task is to create simplicity through consistency. In this way, the customer can enjoy problem-free use of the product, without having to think further about it. Various aspects, such as technology, design and text, play an important role here. And, as described above, placing some of the potential functions in the background can help achieve this. Because in this case, the customer is the focus.

Originally published at gu-co.de on February 27, 2017.