The End of Usability Culture

Dirk Kneymeyer published an article about the “fruits” of a usability discourse ending up in uninspired designs:

The yang to our present yin is a dearth of mainstream creativity, visual differentiation, and sense of active design. For example, the financial services industry spends a tremendous amount of money on Web sites, having moved a large percentage of their overall transactions online for both business and consumer activities. Compared to a few years ago, their Web products are very usable and obviously reflect a great deal of research, feedback and testing. But, looking at their home pages, can anyone tell the difference between three major financial institutions?

I had a discussion with Peter Baumgartner last Sunday about the notion of »interface« applied to educational technology – and I used a tea spoon as an example to explain the possible complexity of design decision that leads to so many different types of spoons. He asked why there are actually new spoon-designs created nowadays and I said, that in part design is about creating difference. A different spoon allows a spoon to become part of a self-descriptive process: we create identity by the way we engage the world and use artefacts to conduct actions and communicate with them. The problem with “consumerism” is that it needs to seduce people to think that consuming products is the best and easiest way to create external descriptors for ourselves (thus difference): you are what you buy. But possessing things is not a value in itself – especially if these things have a limited lifetime. So marketing has shifted from “product values” to “product experience” and product are enriched with the ability to constitute a life style and an identity. I have already commented on the idea of experience and consumerism here.

We love to make distinctive decisions about big issues and tiny issues alike (to value details is a way to live consciously). So to complain about a usability culture that generates similarity is non-sense, because it is a declared goal of usability engineering to identify usage standards and to actively create similarity to better serve the ideals of efficiency, learnability, reliability and satisfaction. But as a collegue once said: “I’ve never met an usability engineer who designed something.”.

The difference between usability and design is not so much a difference in regard to their goals (creating better user experience) but that usability does not focus on the synthesis of form at all. Secondly these two have roots in different scientifical and empirical traditions. This “rootedness” is what I think Kneymeyer is regarding as “culture”. My personal opinion is that designers are not well advised to simply ignore this strong alliance of usability engineering with the traditional scientific culture. The more benefitial approach to answer the attack on design as “un-empirical and un-scientific art” would be to establish a solid reasoning for an alternative understanding of design. This could be extremely difficult to achieve, but the retreat to “experience” (resp. “experience design”) as a higher category just shifts the “battle” from engineering to psychology.

Kneymeyer continues:

Design is more than just aesthetics. It is a sensibility that is often visionary and is about seeing beyond the surface. Design skills are getting mainstream attention and a current business buzzword is “innovation.” Anticipating the central importance of design as the lever for competitive advantage, Stanford University is investing in the creation of a pioneering design school. A new trend is beginning, away from the analytical bent of the researcher and toward the creative nature of the designer.

There is also a follow-up article: The End of Usability Culture Redux






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