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User-friendliness is a bluff!

By Alexander Piatidis, April 2003

"This product doesn’t only have many nice functions, its also user-friendly"

Such a statement is not unusual to see for products such as digital cameras, business systems, booking systems, or other systems that can be relatively complex.

Clearly user-friendliness must be important considering how often it is mentioned in marketing material. Despite this, all too often the only serious effort made in this regard is for the purposes of marketing a product or system after development, when the user-friendliness ‘stamp’ is added.

How can they get away with this bluff?

The reason is that it is difficult to put ones finger on exactly what ‘user-friendliness’ really is. The visual design is tangible, as is the price, but what is it like to use? It is extremely difficult to question such issues before purchase - before having used it for your daily work then its difficult to know how irritating, time consuming or illogical it may be to use.

What is user-friendliness?

User-friendliness is actually a somewhat misleading expression - the issue is not really "friendliness" as such. A friendly person may be welcoming, polite, chatty, pleasant and do favours for you. Friendliness is something we can appreciate about people, possibly pets, but rarely (if ever) technology. Hi-tech products and can in some cases support us in friendly communication with other people, but hardly need to be friendly in themselves.

Microsoft Office Assistant - Paperclip
The 'user-friendly' Office paperclip

No, the concept of user-friendliness does not work particularly well. "Usability" is the word used by those working with making products easier to use, with a stricter definition and a focus on use instead of friendliness.

Usability and its advantages

Usability is the more appropriate term, but unfortunately it is not so well known. There are numerous aspects of a product or system that can come to mind. The central concept is the development of technology that suits users and their needs. This is achieved through early and continuous focus on user requirements and tasks during the development process.

The most widespread definition of usability is that appearing in the international standard ISO 9241 (see ISO Standards), where the key factors of user effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction are named. The definition also goes on to state that these factors must be considered with respect to the intended users, their usage situations and tasks. If one works to meet requirements based on such characteristics, employing those methods that are used internationally by interaction designers and usability specialists, then benefits include:

For producers:

  • Competition - Easy to use products are more competitive on the market.
  • Costs - Taking user requirements properly into account during development can reduce the need for expensive late re-design work.
  • Support - Usability-related issues are behind the majority of user support needs - improved usability will reduce demands on support.
  • Quality - Improving usability will improve the users' perception of the overall quality of the product.

and Users:

  • Productivity - Usable products enable users to efficiently achieve their goals, rather than waste time struggling with the product interface.
  • Support/Training - Well designed products aid learning and can reduce the time users need to spend on training, seeking support or looking at documentation.
  • Satisfaction - Users will be more satisfied and positive towards a product with good usability, rather than dreading using it!

User-friendliness vs Usability

In conclusion one can say that even if usability is the more correct and well-defined term, consumers/users should still demand ease of use from products that claim to be "user-friendly". Regardless of which term is used, developers must be able to back-up their claims as even if promises of "user-friendliness" might sell products in the short term, products that actually have good usability will be successful in the long term.

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