In light of a lot of skepticism being met by this field online, I think it’s time to stop for a moment and talk about why usability is so important. Some may think this is kind of a “well duh” topic, but understandably, there are those who aren’t as sure. These are often coders and financial people, two very different professions, both somewhat removed from the human aspect of designing software and interfaces. Financial people are about profit margins and budgets, coders are about making the mechanics that live below the human layer.
So, in order to emphasize why usability is so important, let’s start by looking briefly at the evolution of digital technologies. Don’t groan, this exemplifies the need for usability sciences quite clearly. We can learn much from history in most scenarios.
So, looking at this, when computers were first developed, they were based on a completely different technology from the past forty years’ computers. Vacuum tubes, partially digital logic, lots of dials and switches. They were confusing, complex and hulking things that only a handful of specialists could operate – and it took teams of these specialists to operate just one. We’re not going to look too closely at that. Let’s step forward in time about fifteen years from there, to the introduction of the microchip and mini/micro computers in the early seventies.
These devices were certainly easier to use than their warehouse-sized ancestors for sure, but that doesn’t make them easy in general. Early computers lacked an operating system, requiring users to manually feed in instructions to get computers to load software, write files and the like. The Commodore exemplifies this. It meant that only a niche group of people could really use them well.
With the advent of operating systems, which were complex, text-based things requiring knowledge of somewhat confusing command structures, computers opened up a little more, allowing professionals in offices to use them as need be – specializing in using software applied to their needs.
It wasn’t until the nineties that people took to computers as tools for a number of things, from entertainment to shopping and communications, research and multimedia. This was partly due to their boost in capacity, but was far more a result of the new methodology in operating system design. GUI-based systems (visual, point and click systems like Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Android today) made computers far more usable, far more quickly, and made them comprehensible to the average person outside specialization.
This was an increase in usability, human-centered design and recognition centrism – all things which usability focuses on in software and interfaces to this day. Without this continuing effort to make interfaces more efficient, more recognizable and more convenient for users – putting deeply complex functionality easily at the fingertips of average people, our society would never be able to continue to embrace the power of the internet, mobile computing and the digital lifestyle we yearly become further dependent upon.
Were it not for usability prioritization, we’d still be feeding lines of basic into terminals to control devices, and get information in the form of ugly, low-resolution text. There would be no beautiful, visual web, no smartphones, no digital multimedia. That, friends, is why usability is important.