“Convenient” is one of those pesky adjectives. According to the dictionary, it can mean a couple of things:

  1. Suited to one’s comfort or ease
  2. Placed near at hand

So far so good. The problem arises when you factor in point of view: “convenience” is always in the eye of the beholder.

When it comes to usability, what is convenient for a designer, programmer, site owner, service provider, etc. is rarely the same as what is convenient for the user of the stuff in question. This is why good design teams practice what is known as “user-centered design.”

Run into something remarkably inconvenient recently?

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I firmly believe that if you cannot see something you are looking for – or ought to be aware of – you have encountered a serious usability problem. And if you’re designing stuff, don’t assume that people are going to play mind-reader or have the patience (or presence of mind) to click around looking for important supplementary information, read the fine print in your Terms and Conditions, or something else that could radically affect their customer journey.

There are four reasons why things are (or become) “invisible”:

  • Needed information is not available where people are looking
  • Needed information is physically blocked by something else.
  • Needed information is not recognized even if it is in plain view
  • Needed information simply doesn’t exist.

Have you ever experienced this yourself? I bet you have!

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The English language has an incredible number of phrases that essentially mean the same thing:

  • Did I make myself clear?
  • Are you with the program?
  • Are the dots connected?

In usability terms, when it comes to “understandable,” the answer to all of these colloquial questions must be “yes.” If not, there is work to be done!

Let’s assume that for any given thing, the engineer knows how to work the knobs and buttons, the designer knows what all the icons mean, the waiter knows that a particular dish is going to take 30 minutes to make. But if I, as a user of these facilities, don’t have a shared frame of reference with these folks, usability is going to suffer: I’ll push the wrong buttons; I’ll click around aimlessly; I’ll get mad because my meal is taking longer than I expected.

The concept of “shared reference” is really the only point I have to make here. On the other hand, it’s incredibly important. In the most basic terms, “shared reference” means that whoever is using something shares the same basic understanding of it as those who made it. Are we all on the same page? I hope so! If you embrace this simple principle, you’ll find you can avoid an incredible number of dumb usability problems.

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For most people, “predictability” and “consistency” mean pretty much the same thing. Actually, I think there is a clear distinction: “consistent” means something does the same thing each and every time; “predictable” means it does what you expect it to do. Let me give you a quick example.

In my house, all the electrical switches look alike and were all approved by the same organization (Underwriter’s Laboratories – UL). That’s consistency. But if I ever travel somewhere I’ve never visited before, I’ll expect to see switch-like objects next to doors that control the lights in a room – assuming there’s electricity. That’s predictability. The chances are really good these devices will either toggle in some manner or be a button that clicks on and off.

As always, creating a proper shared reference lies at the heart of many predictability issues. Got a story to tell?

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In very general terms, three types of logical reasoning:

  • Deductive reasoning
  • Inductive reasoning
  • Retroductive inference

Deductive reasoning is how we arrive at the “truth” – whatever that may be. It means that if A = B and B = C, then A = C. There is often something sequential about deductive reasoning, which I’ll get to a little later on in the chapter.

Inductive reasoning isn’t necessarily true, but suggests the probability of something being true. It helps us make a judgment based on past observations: “Joe has been driving for 40 years. He has never had an accident and only one ticket. Therefore, Joe must be a good driver.”  What we don’t know is how much driving Joe actually does. Maybe he walks or bikes most of the time. But the probability is high that Joe really is a good driver.

Retroductive inference is all about learning things in one situation and then applying these things in a new, but similar situation. Like understanding how to get around an unfamiliar airport: the plane is at the gate. The gate has a number and possibly a letter. Signs will point the way.

All three of these ways of thinking about “stuff” affect our perceptions of “usability.” Remember, when I say “stuff” I basically mean everything – physical objects, interactive objects, services, etc. Anyway, I hope you’ll find this knowledge as useful as I have over the years.

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Consistency is one of the keys to achieving elegance and clarity in functional design. Remember, we’re dealing with the psychological aspects of something – that it does what we expect it to do – each and every time. Just as we expect our fellow players in a game to stick to the agreed rules. Only in reality TV shows do we find it amusing to see the rules suddenly change – to the despair of the celebrity wannabes involved.

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When response mechanisms are inappropriate or lacking entirely, usability invariably suffers – imagine a phone that only vibrated and was unable to ring. Sound silly? You’ll be surprised at the number of times appropriate responses are not provided during the course of your day – from something simple, like the personnel at Starbucks forgetting to tell you that your Grande Latte is ready, to something more complicated, like a lack of confirmation after you’ve bought something online.

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