The Usability Appreciation Paradox

We all love a bit of appreciation, don’t we? Whether it’s a simple thank you from a customer who you have given good service to, an improvement in KPIs because of the steps you have taken, or even an award or prize, it’s nice to feel that the quality of the work you have done has been recognised.

However, it struck me this week that the best result you can hope for when delivering an excellent user interface is that no-one even notices it’s there.

Creating Illusions in Software

On a usability course I went on recently, our lecturer Bruce ‘Tog’ Tognazzini talked about creating illusions in software. If your interface presents an illusion thoroughly and completely, the user will interact with the illusion itself, rather than thinking about the computer. When you play Angry Birds, you are thoroughly engaged with the illusion – you set your catapult and ping your bird across the screen at a pile of boxes, bricks and green pigs wearing helmets. It never occurs to you that those things are just strings of computer code. You certainly don’t come away thinking ‘that was a really carefully designed user interface’. You think ‘wow I really hammered those pigs’ or ‘I got to level 6’.

So a UI with a strong and consistent illusion will hide the fact that it is a piece of software altogether. Users will engage with the task itself rather than the interface, and positive feedback is likely to centre around the fact they achieved what they were trying to do, rather than a critique of the interface itself. On the flip side, a weaker or broken illusion will lead to users considering the interface independently from the illusion and  we might hear comments like ‘I couldn’t find my way out’, ‘I didn’t know what to do next’ or ‘I kept clicking save because I wasn’t sure if it was going to lose my work’.

And this is the ‘appreciation paradox’ – the worse we do at creating that illusion, the more people are going to give negative feedback about the interface. However, if we do a really good job, users will be fully absorbed in the illusion and may have nothing to say about the interface at all.

What my users said

I have been working with a travel industry client for many months to develop a new internal booking system for their company. This week I flew out to the US to introduce the first usable cut of the code to a small group of pilot users in my client’s Chicago office. Obviously interacting with a piece of software yourself, you get an impression of how usable the interface is. Through testing, validation, QA and just trying it out on random victims around the office, you build up a picture of how user-friendly your development is to others, and where the snags and likely trip-points are. But it isn’t until your real target users get their hands on the system that you really get to know about usability.

Our system is designed to make the job of creating holiday itineraries easier for my client’s sales staff. So given the ‘appreciation paradox’, feedback along the lines of ‘I can make bookings much more quickly than before’, or at a push ‘I found it easy to use’ are probably the best feedback we could hope for. So how did we do?

Well, in reality, we were using an early code version that contains several known bugs that compromise the illusion entirely, and we are months away from a production version. We wanted to prove the overall design concept and thankfully by the end of the week the consensus from the business users was that we had achieved that. I took down a great deal of feedback from both observing users interacting with the system and asking for their comments. But overall, I am pleased to say that our users seemed to be able to interact with our illusion and besides comments about specific parts of the process that need improvement, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

My favourite comment from our users was

“You don’t really need training, you can just use it”.

I think this means we are heading for that place where the interface isn’t even noticed, and we get no appreciation of all our hard work with the design… Great news – I am heading home happy!

UX

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