Designing for ease of use
Let‘s face it, we’re all lazy.
Time savers such as the top 40, best sellers lists, edited highlights, trip advisor reviews, most read articles and celebrity endorsements all save us effort and make our lives easier by taking advantage of someone else having done the work for us.
You probably decided to read this article because Medium promised you it would only take a few minutes to read.
Headline writers know this only too well.
“Elon Musk Just Gave Some Brilliant Career Advice. Here It Is In 1 Sentence”
Ease of use is important because people are willing to invest so little effort in using your products and services.
Ease of use = good design
Good design is far more than how something looks - it’s about how things work and how they feel to use.
‘Ease of use’ is a commonly cited quality of something that is ‘well designed’ and is a typical objective for product and service designers.
In his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells us more about why this is important.
“Easy is a sign that things are going well — no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or to mobilise effort”
Kahneman uncovers some useful contributory psychological factors that we can use to increase the likelihood that people will find it easy to use the things we design.
He identifies that things feel easier to use when we’re in a good mood, they are familiar and easy to interpret.
Trying to alter someone’s mood feels unlikely (although not impossible) but we should consider what their mood is likely to be given the task they are undertaking.
Designing something that people will be motivated to do (download their favourite album) will feel easier than something that people have little motivation to do (complete their tax return).
Consider the challenge of designing an online tax return.
It is likely that the user will be in a bad mood because they know:
- It will cost them money (and they don’t know exactly how much)
- If they make a mistake they might be fined
- It will be written in legalese
- They have a deadline to submit it by
All of these factors will contribute to making the task feel harder to complete.
Conversely, I’ve seen highly motivated users report how easy they found something that was actually quite difficult to do.
When watching cycling enthusiasts try and buy new cycling kit online it was fascinating to see how they would happily persevere despite the website being very difficult to use.
We all observed how difficult it was to buy things, but despite this they told us just how easy they had found it and how they would recommend it to their friends!
This is a useful reminder of how biased self reporting can be and the importance of seeing things for yourself.
Designing for familiarity presents a clear argument for following design patterns or typical ways of representing particular things (i.e. locating the home link in the top left hand side of a web page).
Patterns offer efficiency for designers when creating things as well as for users when they use things.
Designers sometimes fall into the trap of deliberately ignoring conventions in an effort to be ‘innovative’ which can result in pain for the user.
Designers can also feel pressure to stray from these patterns to demonstrate that they’ve actually done some work and not just copied the competition.
This might get you sign off from a client but will often manifest as ‘usability debt’ incurred by users having to re-learn something they expected to follow an established pattern based on their prior experience.
The trick is to use the patterns to your advantage because they will increase familiarity for the user and help to make things easier to use.
Easy to interpret
Interpretation in the context of design is about legibility and comprehension.
Designers should consider just how easy is it for people to read and interpret what they need to do to accomplish their task.
People will quickly tell you if something ‘looks like hard work’ before they’ve invested too much effort. We are great at ‘triaging’ things to determine where we are willing to invest our effort and will always be biased towards things that seem easier to do.
Our preference for things that are easy to interpret is illustrated by Kahneman when he talks about how companies with pronounceable names do better than others during the first few weeks after their stocks are issued.
“A study conducted in Switzerland found that investors believed that stocks with fluent names like Emmi, Swissfirst and Comet will earn higher returns than those with clunky labels like Geberit and Ypsomed.”
It seems remarkable that people were more willing to invest their money with stocks that had more pronounceable names but this shows just how something this fundamental can influence our behaviour.
You’ll know when people are finding things hard to interpret when they tell you an interface looks ‘busy’ when you ask them to describe what they are seeing. This tells you things need to be simplified to reduce the work required to process them.
Making thing easy to use is hard.
Ironically designers struggle to make things easy to use for exactly the same reasons that users find their designs hard to use.
Solving design problems can be stressful, fraught with compromise and requires huge amounts of effort, patience and perseverance.
I’ve seen designs fail in user research and then heard designers argue against making changes to their work due to the effort they imagine will be required to solve the problem.
It is exactly this investment of effort made by designers that saves effort for users further down the line.
So during your next design challenge, consider the likely mood of your users, how familiar your designs will be to them and making them easier to interpret you will make them significantly easier to use.