Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good design and usability principles

Alex Ivkin, Senior IT Security Architect

I am a big proponent of usability. After all, regardless of how good something is, or how many cool features it has, if it is unusable – it is worthless. A hard to use application, website or in fact anything that interacts with a human, will not be popular, will lose out to competition or be ignored altogether. There are many articles on the web with examples and lists of usability principles, so I would not go into that here.

It seems, however, that many sites, like ss64.com or useit.com, suffer from a common pitfall in usability design, sacrificing design by going too far. They subscribe to the lowest common denominator in an effort to make it usable to the biggest possible crowd. This makes them very plain and downright ugly. Sure, they cover the 99% of the crowd out there, not the 95% a good design would cover, but in the push for these extra 4% they lose much in the beauty and attractiveness.

Ever wondered how Apple design wins praises so much? It’s not only created with usability in mind, it is also very attractive. Good, usable design after all has clues that are beyond simply making it readable or understandable. The clues are like little streaks of color on a bland background that make it come alive, make it stand out and win over a more “usable” background for most of people out there. Combining a creative effort with a usability agenda is the winning combination.

With that in mind here are the good usability design principles:

  1. Start with a use-case. Run through how you think the users will approach the tasks and navigate through. You will be wrong, but that’s a start.
  2. Think how it could be simplified. In many cases the simpler is the better. Many designs, like a single hand faucet handle, start off designed for the ease of use with simplicity and then they win over. Assume you are designing for people who are resource constrained: “the less brain I can devote to this task the better”
  3. Be creative. Think how you can make it more attractive.
  4. Consider performance. Yes it is a big usability factor.
  5. Implement and fix bugs (another big usability factor).
  6. Rinse and repeat.

What you can do to improve it if you have run out of ideas:

  1. Think about HTTP/XHTML validation and CSS compliance
  2. Focus on making it understandable by all kinds of colorblind people
  3. Sprinkle with metadata, image tags and SEOs

An interesting twist to the discussion above was mentioned in a recent Wired article on ‘good enough tech’. The usability principles break down on the economics level somewhat. In other words if something is cheap enough, and usable enough, it will work for the most of us. So, think of where your design fits economically and how would it compete in that niche. If your stuff is cheap, it may work with a cheap design and being somewhat ok to use (think IKEA). If your stuff is free, it may limp by being somewhat unusable. Like this blog.

Alex Ivkin is a senior IT Security Architect with a focus in Identity and Access Management at Prolifics. Mr. Ivkin has worked with executive stakeholders in large and small organizations to help drive security initiatives. He has helped companies succeed in attaining regulatory compliance, improving business operations and securing enterprise infrastructure. Mr. Ivkin has achieved the highest levels of certification with several major Identity Management vendors and holds the CISSP designation. He is also a speaker at various conferences and an active member of several user communities.