Product Marty Cagan

Beyond Usability

In this article I wanted to try to make the case that as an industry we need to expand the focus of User Experience well beyond usability.

Most of you hopefully already know that User Experience is much more than usability.  But even those of you that do may be inadvertently hurting your case.

For example, do you still refer to testing as running “Usability Tests?”  Do you focus your time on task completion?

None of what follows is to say that usability is not important.  I’m a big believer that it is, and that it is in fact still fairly easy to differentiate your product through usability, especially in the enterprise software space.

But the most difficult question is not really whether or not the user can figure out how to use the product, it is whether they even want to use the product.  Usability is usually the easier part.

To get people to want to use our products, we first need to focus on whether it’s the right functionality to begin with.

Too many designers still want to assume that getting the user to actually choose to use the product is the responsibility of either sales, marketing or the product manager, and they are just responsible for making sure the product is usable.

But for consumer-facing products, every user is effectively the buyer.  They must first decide whether they want to use your product.

Some people don’t like when I point this out, but quite a few products actually succeed in spite of pretty awful usability.  The truth is, if the carrot is big enough, users will jump though all kinds of hoops to get to the prize.

This is why I describe the process of testing our ideas on real users and customers as prototype testing.  We are assessing the value of the product as well as the usability of the product.  We are not just looking to see if users can accomplish tasks; we are looking to see whether these are even the right tasks in the first place.  Too many people think of design as just usability.

Similarly, I think it’s also true that too many people think of design as look and feel.  Ironically, many of those people that think of it as “just look and feel” also don’t fully appreciate the power of visual design.

Visual design contributes so much to the emotional response that people have to our products.  It can assuage fear.  It can build trust.  It can convince people to provide personal information they otherwise would not.  It can make them love a product they would otherwise just like.  It can motivate them to reach out to their friends.  It can persuade them to buy merchandise they wouldn’t otherwise.  It can make them actually enjoy their time on your site.

How many tools do we have with that kind of power?   This is why I prefer to test with high-fidelity prototypes that include the proposed visual design.

I know that most of you understand all this, but can you see how your execs might miss these points when we keep talking about “usability testing?”

We need to position user experience design as the heart of product discovery, and keep reminding everyone that product discovery is about discovering products that are not just usable, but valuable and feasible.