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Nip It in the NUB
by
George Donahue, Editor

Lately in some quarters it's cool to bash usability. This is a bit different from the "Never heard of it and don't need it" kind of opposition many of us have encountered in our careers. The Neo-Usability Bashing (NUB) argument goes something like this: Usability is so '90s, so software-application centered. In this brave new networked world, usability's outlived its worth. On the Web, people aren't "users" as they were when they were using a spreadsheet or a word processing application, they're "searchers," "game-players," "shoppers," etc.

To which I say, Yo: There's nothing new about opposing usability engineering. Pardon my French, but plus ša change. There will always be people with "reasons"  for not doing usability. But now it's not aging, troglodytic COBOL programmers complaining about "psychological stuff" having no place in their man's world of software development, it's people one would expect to know better; and their arguments can seem more nuanced.

Now I intend no disrespect to my more youthful homo sapiens sapiens conspecifics, many of whom are skilled usability practitioners and eloquent defenders of the faith. But Neo-Usability Bashers (NUBs) tend to be under 30 and to have little personal knowledge of what software was like before the late '80s, i.e., before GUIs, before user-centered design techniques and HCI principles began to have anything resembling a perceivable influence on UI design. NUBs may even aver that "user-centered design" is important, but to them the phrase is an abstraction like Truth and Beauty, rather than a concrete term describing specific techniques. The NUB twist is that, as far as users are concerned, all you need is a "listening lab" or two. That'll get you all you need to deliver a quality user experience. Never mind that what people say and what they do are often quite different.

Though the old and new waves of usability resistance aren't identical, they seem to lead to a similar conclusion: It's OK to scant user-centered design techniques. It's OK to pretend you know how users behave without observing any.

Usability (call it "user experience" if you want; call it The Jimi Hendrix Experience; it doesn't matter what it's called, as long as it gets done) is more relevant now than ever. Whatever the device, whatever the context of use, there are user interfaces and there are different people wanting or needing to use them. Making those UIs easy, efficient, learnable, error-preventative and satisfying to those people is what usability is about. These things are essential to quality user experiences, no matter the platform or usage context. And that's not going to change until human nature does, i.e., not for another 100,000 years or so, at least.

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