Why Usability Matters
by Lori Yaverbaum, Commonwealth Financial Network
My husband is a commercial airline pilot, and it’s easy for him to talk with almost anyone about his job. After all, who doesn’t have a good travel story to share? It’s not quite the same when I tell people that, as the vice president of user experience at Commonwealth, part of my job is to ensure that our products and services are “usable.” They don’t seem all that interested in hearing why usability matters. But it does matter, quite a lot! So, let’s take a look at what usability is, why it's important (using some real-world examples), and some of the ways we improve usability here at Commonwealth.
The usability of a product or service is based on how efficiently and effectively a person can use it—and just how satisfied he or she was with the process. There are many formal definitions of usability out there, but here’s my simplified one:
Usability = 0% frustration + 100% satisfaction
When this basic formula isn’t met, some of the costliest, most embarrassing, and even deadliest mistakes have resulted. Here are just a few examples of usability gone wrong.
Unclear forms. As you might recall from the November 2000 election, an unclear ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, resulted in many voters accidentally casting their votes for Pat Buchanan, necessitating a costly recount. In the image below, you can see that Al Gore is listed second down on the left, but a voter would have to choose the third selection button to vote for him. The alignment is quite confusing and the instructions unclear. Why are the arrows numbered but the corresponding candidate selections are not?
Poor readability. Recently, a well-publicized issue at the Oscars highlighted the importance of readability. Although the presenters were in fact given the wrong card when announcing the Best Picture award, what if that incorrect card had been easier to read? The color contrast of the print on the envelope and the format of the text on the announcement card itself contributed to this mix-up. The text was simply not legible enough, particularly given the stage lighting.
Cluttered display. One thing I’ve come to realize from watching Why Planes Crash with my husband is that many air disasters are related to usability issues. For instance, an Airbus 320 crash in January 1992 was partly caused by a mode switch that was turned to the wrong position. How could an experienced pilot make this mistake? The small switch was located among a large bank of other switches. Adding to the confusion was the fact that different types of information were displayed in close proximity, making it difficult to distinguish at a glance.