Improving hardware and software usability, but for whom?

stock-footage-social-network-on-touch-screen-tablet-pc-with-finger-touching-screen-and-arranging-wordsLast year, I read an astute saying that said “If you didn’t pay to use a service, then you are the product being sold”. I feel like that kind of “buyer beware” maxim could be applied to ease-of-use in information technologies too. Here’s what I mean…

If a technology tool or platform is popular, we could say that, in part, because it’s easier to use than the competition, the usability aspect of its design was likely a core business strategy. Hardware designers might talk of “build quality” and ergonomics – it’s all about usability.

Today, usability is deeply integrated into product design and marketing. For example, let’s take the rise of tablet computing platforms – most popularly, the Apple iPad. Many users who are new, or technologically-intimidated, or very young or old, will likely have an easier time using a touch-tablet like the iPad than they would using a desktop computer. Compared to the user experience of manipulating a mouse and keyboard on a desk to manipulate objects on a screen, touching your finger to a screen on a tablet (primarily one that has an OS that is designed for touch use) is much easier for a new or unfamiliar user. You don’t have to “get used” to using a mouse (i.e. training yourself that a wrist movement of a few inches from left to right across your desk will translate into a one-foot left-to-right motion of a pointer on the screen in front of your face). This basic aspect of the windows-mouse-icon-pointer interface is actually a barrier to use: a new user must practice a little bit before they can easily manipulate graphical objects using a mouse.

In this regard, smartphone and tablet-based computing have been absolute game-changer technologies for many people. Apple and many other manufacturers knew this, and were waiting for touch-screen technology to become sophisticated and inexpensive enough to bring to the mass market.

These devices are used to access many free and for-pay information and media services. People don’t really think about the way it is – they just want to be able to use these devices – these new gadgets – to get at the news, music, movies, or games that they want. Corporations seem to have taken a cue from the original “information on the Internet should be free” ethos that evolved through the 70s, 80s and 90s, and subverted it by making books, apps and games available on tablets for only a few dollars, or even for free. Buying an iPad game that will give you dozens of hours of fun will cost you about the same as a pack of bubble gum. That’s one barrier gone. After you download it, you can use it right away – installation is usually fast and minimal. That’s another barrier gone.

From a business perspective, making a platform easier to use (usability), and making the purchase process easier to complete (one-click fulfillment) and easier to justify (cheap or free) will easily result in more purchases. Amazon’s “One-click” purchase button was the first place I saw this kind of supermarket checkout “impulse purchase” tactic at work. I had disposable income, and Jeff Bezos and Amazon made it extremely easy for me to dispose of it on a whim. I could “impulse buy” a thirty dollar hardcover book with even less effort than it would take to grab a candy bar at the checkout aisle at Safeway. Tablets with apps and books that can be bought for under a dollar, while you’re laying in bed at night, are about as convenient and impulsive as it gets.

It means that the end-user consumer must exercise some discretion and will power to avoid nickel and diming themselves down to a negative balance in their bank account. A high degree of usability in the device itself makes for a pleasing and satisfying user experience, and ubiquitous cheap online products in a “one-click marketplace make it deceptively easy to please the vendors.

So, if it’s too easy to use, be careful. You might use it too often.

Buyer beware.

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