Usability, usable products, user experience…nowadays we come across these terms more often in the software product development area. We have heard of the words such as useless, useful in our early years and these are generally used in our daily life. Haven’t you ever wondered what usable products mean? How can one define a product as usable? What makes a product step up from being useful to usable? Well, I would like to put a product’s progression in the following form:
useless –> useful –> usable and then reusable. This does not however mean that every product needs to start from the first step nor does it need to go in the same order of progress. Often times, we heard people chide others as useless. However, I wish to restrict the scope of this discussion only to products. For ease of association, I wish to use similes from our real life usage to bring forth the differences clearly.
Products which are of no use to anybody can be called useless. In my terms of the 3 factors that contribute to a product (business viability, functional utility and technical feasibility), these products lack any or all of them. If I were to draw a normal distribution of the products in our world today, useless products could be about 10% of the curve. No product owner would like to create useless products. Even those products which were once useful tend to get useless over time, due to various factors. Due to the Marketing myopia, the product owner would have done nothing to keep the product up-to-date and in line with the users’ needs. Let me give a few examples from real life products.
As is where is
I think it was almost a decade ago, beeper was introduced into the market. This device was intended to send and receive short messages sent from a telephone. You could see the phone number from which the message came from and in a few advanced devices, you could also read text messages. At that time, it was a success considering that it was adopted really fast by users. I remember every sales person used to carry this device and pretty much showed off as a cool gizmo. But over time, it died a slow death. Why am I referring to this as a useless product now? Well, the electronic manufacturers could not take the technology (including hardware and software) ahead and improve the product with the evolving user needs.
Pretty and cool but…
Products also could become useless if they fail to deliver the business benefits. Some products have amazing functionality and great looks. But if they fail to deliver the business value to the owners, they are bound to be failures. A case in point is Supersonic Jet Concorde. Positioned as the most comfortable and fastest mode of communication between two continents, the concorde was a brilliant product with well-thought out design and great technology. I heard that the scientists used Lateral Thinking technique to design the cockpit of this plane. In spite of all these good things, the product was called off air, partly because of the huge maintenance cost from the management and few takers due to its prohibitive cost.
Motorola was once considered as the most creative organisation in the world, what with their six-sigma processes and bleeding-edge technology products. Back in the 1990’s Motorola, together with a few other companies launched ‘Iridium’, the satellite phone. With a tagline that says, “Geography is now history”, Iridium was positioned as the phone that world would need. However, this phone too faced the same problems as the Concorde did. It did not make any sense to the users to invest in a such a hugely expensive phone. I think at that time, it would have been less expensive to travel from India to UK and meet the person, than to use Iridium and have a call with him/her.
These are the products that meet the needs of the users. Simply put, they work and ensure that their users get something out of them. Most of the products today belong to this category. In my normal distribution of the products, I would attribute about 80% to these products. They are better than the useless products in the sense that they cater to all the 3 factors – business, technology and functionality. These products often are generic, run-of-the-mill stuff which are just meant to be non-personal and cold to their users. They fit to what Ford used to refer “any car as long as it is black”. Most of the products that we have out there in the market belong to this category. They are designed and developed well and they meet the expectations of most of the users.
Why we have many ‘useful’ products around
The problem, in my opinion, with these products is that they tend to stagnate over time and pretend as if they are living in their own world. Over time, they tend to lose their contact and stop evolving with users’ needs. These products do have a shelf-life and could even face a sudden death when they reach their end of life. Even the product owners tend not to improve the products because they their focus drift away from users’ real needs to mere money-making and using advance technologies.
There are tons of examples for this kind of products if only you look outside. Almost all the products except the top-5 leading brands and vendors in every area, industry and walk of life belong to this category. The reason why most useful products do exist today is because users tend to develop habits and love to retain their habits and hate changing them often. Often, these habits are not as good as they were sometime before and would only degrade the performance of users.
So, what do we need to make these products usable? Well, first let us try and understand what usable products are and then check out the options that we have to move up the continuum.
These products bring delight to their users. They are loved, admired and aspired for by users and non-users alike. These products are warm, personalised, adjust to users’ needs and wants and are highly respected for their thought-leadership. The usable products go beyond the product specifications and serve their users’ needs- both explicit and implicit needs.
Usable products are far and few. They are desired for by most product owners. However for want of expertise, experience and guidance, they fall short of the required steps in making their products usable. In the future posts, I will describe this in greater detail as to how a product can be made usable. Just to make this an interactive exercise, I give below a few examples from real life. You can write back to me in the comments which category these products fall into.