Ease of use goes wrong

An interesting post over at Creating Passionate Users about when ease-of-use goes wrong. I really like the infographic at the top of the article and it gets across the point really well – sometimes people are looking for a dog but instead end up with a toy dog – more user-friendly and does it’s job well, but not what we wanted.

The article describes how user interface designers do need to think about end of use and usability but at the same time shouldn’t cripple their software or dumb it down. A program could be really powerful but too hard to use such that no one can find what they want to do. On the other end of the spectrum, it could be dead easy to use but also feature-less; once again the user can’t find what they’re looking for.

The whole "ease of use" thing has spread through the open source community recently after the huge success of Firefox. Firefox, for me, hits the nail on the head – it’s both powerful and easy to use. It doesn’t contain the esoteric features that only a few geeks are going to ever use. It contains enough features such that one can use Firefox without extensions and get their job done.

I’ll admit to jumping on the whole bandwagon – I’ve been a big fan of making open source software as easy to use as possible. I’ve made several posts critiquing the user interface of phpBB 3 and how it is overly-complicated and esoteric:

You’ve then got Vanilla which is on the other side of the bulletin board spectrum – it’s so simple and uncluttered. And the chances are that it’s got enough features for many people to run a forum happily. But at the same time they make the mistake of asking people to install extensions during the installation process. This shouldn’t be necessary.

In the world of Linux, I’ve always considered KDE applications to be too complex and many GNOME applications to be too simple. 

Creating Passionate Users suggests a few ways of how we can make sure the user interface is targeted at the right audience:

  • Different product editions each aimed at different groups (power users, beginners, etc.) e.g. Apple Garageband/Logic Express
  • Extensions e.g. Mozilla Firefox and soon OpenOffice.org
  • Advanced modes

It’s a really interesting read and very well explained. The following quote summed it up well for me:

There’s at least two different forms of easy: easy-as-in-natural-usability and easy-as-in-dumbed-down.

2 thoughts on “Ease of use goes wrong

  1. GarageBand versus Sibelius versus Rosegarden.

    And if you think gnome’s the simpler option, you’re a young’un 😉 Days were when Gnome was waaaay more configurable, but they quite consciously got “ease of luse” big-time. The fact is, KDE is a complete suite of everything-I-want under one roof, which is why I’m emerge-ing it now and gnome is relegated to a bunch of libraries with an ugly UI, built & used on demand as a secondary environment.

    Ruby and Rails have a motto, “convention over configuration”. I don’t necessarily subscribe to it very much, but I’ve got to respect the productivity of getting things done in that camp.

  2. People sometimes need to remember it’s usability, not beginner-ability.Often an interface is made so that it’s easy for beginners to pick up, but once you’re used to the software, the interface becomes to cumbersome and doesn’t allow you to work as efficiently as you could.

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