Usableism

Different people will draw different interpretations of events.

My old pal Erik “Transit Geek” Hare (the nick is purely a NARN creation, feel free not to use it in regular conversation) has – if you read his blog, Barataria – invested a lot in the notion that world is on the brink of a huge realignment of some sort of another, and has since I’ve known him.  That’s going on fifteen years now.

He thinks the recent splatter at Facebook is a sign of this. I, naturally, take a more prosaic view that, as is happens, ties in with my little corner of the IT world.

The design team at Facebook thought it had a winning strategy to defeat Twitter – offer users everything that Twitter has, and more. What they didn’t realize is that Twitter’s base were fans for one key reason – it was less. The resulting firestorm has Facebook scrambling to regroup. This may seem like an isolated situation, a simple business decision gone wrong, but it appears to be something more. Observed from the perspective of general trends in culture and the arts, minimalism appears to be the fashion and thought of the day.

Well, if you constrain your perspective to that of “currently-vogue-y social networking websites”, that sure seems to be true.

The implications extend far beyond one software product.deskMinimalism is, at its heart, an ethic of stripping everything down to its essential elements. It’s different from utilitarianism in that in minimalism the structure and essence speak for themselves, creating a style that goes beyond the simple use of an object. There is a philosophy at the heart of minimalism, a plan and ethos that is not unadorned, but the ornamentation grows naturally from the essence of what the thing at hand really is. In short, form closely follows function.

Except that if you look beyond that, throughout society, you’ll find that minimalism in and of itself only goes so far.

Microsoft Word, the big-screen TV, the IPhone, video games with seemingly-complex user interfaces with buttons and little flippy gizmos, American Idol (with its byzantine voting and judging arrangments and its patina of excess), cars loaded with IPods and Satellite Terminals and packed with hybrid engines whose engine compartments look like Auxiliary Equipment rooms in nuclear submarines, Deal or No Deal (with its permuted plot and masses of models)  and Google – the very definition of “feature creep” – are all mind-warpingly popular.

What do they have in common? Not much!  Some look complex from the outside; others, like Google, mask immense complexity in a benign wrapper with just one input field and two buttons.

What they – or at least, the parts of “they” that are successful – have in common is “usability”.  Can a person sit down and, without any “training” and with a minimum of muss and fuss, use the thing, first successfully, then productively, and finally with enough pleasure to make someone want to buy another one?

Minimalism alone isn’t it.  Google is a page with an input blank and a couple of buttons.  Pretty minimal, right?

WordPerfect for DOS was also simple; you booted it up and looked at a blue screen with no controls and few cues.

One of them is utterly self-explanatory; try Google once or twice, and one pretty well has it down.  On the other hand, WordPerfect – once the lingua franca of world processors, for those of you who remember the early ’90’s – spawned an immense industry for people to train people how to use the thing. It died when Microsoft Word – anything but a “minimalist” program – figured out how to make visual complexity relatively usable.

Software that has the minimalist ethic is not much different in its approach. By keeping things simple and allowing the user to put themselves and their needs into the program, a programmer can create something that fills a fairly narrow niche that has a lot of room to grow. Flexibility and customization are usually key points…The basic ideas are heavily modernist in origin – form follows function.

Except that in the cases of products that succeed in the market, form and function both follow usability.  In the cases of each of the products I listed above, from the Prius to the IPhone, designers and the various flavors of “usability” people – human factors engineers, usability analysts, designers and the rest – manage to tame and shape both form and function to make the product work with people rather than against them. So whether the product is, on its face, complex (the IPhone, the video game) or simple (Google) or familiar (the “user interface” for the car is pretty well-know everywhere in the world), the common thread isn’t minimalism, or even the system’s form or function themselves.

It’s this;when the product was being desgned, did the designers ask themselves “what will it take to make this thing work with users, rather than against them?”
Erik’s piece delves into minimalist music as well. That’s worth another article.

1 thought on “Usableism

  1. First of all, it’s always what the customers want that counts. That’s a huge “duh”, but the kind that is worth repeating – if for no reason other than it’s so often forgotten. This is the main problem with the Central Corridor, for example.

    Form does follow function, which is all about how useful the damned thing is, sure. What I decided to call “minimalism” is more than where usability meets kewl. A genuinely consistent design philosophy allows people to read new uses into something, stuff that the designers never could have possibly imagined. Yes, the designers have to get it right, but a really good product goes far beyond what they were thinking.

    That philosophy is at the heart of some trends in the arts, generally known as Minimalism. You hear something inbetween what Phillip Glass wrote, and you have to put yourself in the middle of a Palahniuk novel. A shovel is usable, but it’s unlikely to ever be much more than a shovel (or a prybar when you’re desperate); simple messaging like twitter could be the basis of a lot more someday (but not now).

    Why did I want to dive into the facebook problem and make it sound like a bigger trend? It’s the whole idea of social marketing that I was getting around. All these kewl gizmos or fancy slogans or anything else people come up with won’t make it unless they get into the heads of the users/readers and come back out as something else. Something on fire, ideally. How do you do that? The ethic of minimalism – which starts with just what it is but invites people to make it so much more.

    Now, as to my predicting things are gon’ change. I admit it, when the bubble was first inflating I said, “This ain’t gonna end well”. This tendency makes me no fun at parties, I’m sure. But the bubble that finally worked its way through (and its one bubble, not many) will change things. So far, the big change of Globalism has been a happy dance, at least as long as everyone thought we’d get right together without doing any actual work. How will they feel about it now?

    We’re still a great country, of course, but we’re going to have to do things a bit differently. Reinventing ourselves is what the USA does best, and I think we’re going to have to do it. Something more … I dunno, usable? Let’s say minimalist, more open and willing to invite other ideas into our world as we get practical and utilitarian. Yes, there’s a theme here. It’s more targeted at my friends at the left, but I like seeing the right come into it.

    We can get rich, together, but we’ll have to work. Trends that invite people to put themselves into the situation are all good, and very American. Usability is very, very important – but what about the stuff that no central planner can possibly see coming? That’s the fun. That’s where Minimalism makes a big difference. That’s how we a fluid enough to restructure ourselves constantly and make a really dynamic economy. But I’ll start by ripping on facebook, if you don’t mind.

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