Talk Review: Steve Krug - Is Usability Taking a Nose Dive?

A week ago, Steve Krug, guru of UX design, visited Art Center to talk about the state of UX and usability design today and whether it has degraded instead of improved over the last few years. Below is a summary of what I caught from the talk, as while as my thoughts on the subject.

He starts off the talk stating poignantly that usability is not about creating desirability and delightful experiences. While those things make something more pleasant to use and is an important aspect of design, usability is more about the actual usage of something. He defines usability as such.

Something is usable if:
- A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience,
- can figure out how to use the thing,
- to accomplish some desired goal,
- without it being more trouble than it's worth.

Cool vs Usable

Based on that definition, a lot of modern web browsing features, such as infinite scrolling and centered type on a webpage are notoriously 'un-usable'. In the case of infinite scrolling, it is good for sites like Facebook, where you're browsing through people's status and you don't really care where you end up. But for sites that have rich informational content, like news sites for example, infinite scrolling doesn't make sense as you'll lose your position on the page and it'll be an unnecessary hassle to scroll all the way back up to an article that you want to read again. The Back button on your web browser is also now useless. At this point Steve comically mentioned, "Who would have known that even the Back button – being able to go back to my previous page, would become a problem with today's technology."

As such, it is the designer's responsibility to be able to make that discretion and applying the relevant features for the relevant usage scenarios and not just slap on a feature just because everyone else is doing it and it's the 'cool' thing to do. In fact, in today's context, usability is almost being portrayed as the 'enemy of cool'.


Technology's Fast Pace

One of the challenges for UX designers today is that "things are moving awfully fast." As such, establishing the level of thought and consideration needed to make usable interfaces is an uphill task as the demand for new software is moving a lot faster. It's almost to a point where new devices are coming out faster than new usable interfaces. UX for new technology takes time, a limited commodity in the fast pace of technology.  With the host of usability issues already sprouting up with the introduction of mobile platforms, who knows what will happen next when wearables come onto the scene?

My Takeaways

For me, his presentation was like a wake up call. I realized that I've been having so many gripes with modern interfaces, such as the oversized type on webpages that bleed off the screen. While these look great for the mobile platform, they are horrible to use on a desktop platform. However I was under the mindset that this was an evolution of web design and it was my job as a designer to conform and adapt to that trend.

Steve's presentation made me realize that this trend didn't really make sense from a human factors and usability standpoint. Whatever the trend is, we as designers have to be able to produce products based on solid usability principles, because after all, as much as technology can change and evolve, our human anatomy and its "user-ability" would remain constant. Perhaps this is why Samsung's Gear smartwatch pales so much in comparison to Motorola's Moto 360. The latter was clearly designed from the perspective of a human experience while the former was driven by technological features, trying to conform the human experience to follow technology.


What's next?

Moving forward, this talk raised a lot of good points that has helped me approach design with a renewed perspective, how usability and the user/person has to always take precedence to trends and technology. As a product designer, with a deep understanding of how the user interacts with an object, this also allowed me to recognize the value of product designers in an increasingly digital/interactive world.