Why no one thinks about usability
By Adil Wali , 28th Mar 2010

I’ve been in the software development business for a while now. And the lesson that I have learned, and re-learned, more than any other is simple: Usability is WAY MORE important than everyone thinks. This is been an interesting and humbling realization for me. It’s interesting because it is such a widespread misconception, and I am curious to know why usability is so overlooked. It’s humbling because I have lost sight of its importance so many times in the last few years that I am pretty embarrassed by it.

So let’s think it through.

Why do so many people overlook the importance of usability in developing software and web applications? I think the answer depends a lot on who the person is. If you are an engineer, then the answer is generally pretty clear: not that many people (if any) spent the time to really teach you about usability is and why it matters. Most colleges and universities sort of overlook usability when they think about computer science. They leave that ‘new-fangled stuff’ to those weird HCI people. Furthermore, your first few jobs were not likely to have helped. Most corporate structures try to separate the ‘thinking’ from the ‘development’ as much as is possible. They have marketing departments, design departments, and business analysts who work to make all the important decisions. Your job is, generally, just to make it work the way they ask you to make it work.

Ok, fine, that’s a pretty solid set of excuses for most engineers. Also, it’s fair to say that, for some of us engineering types, we just are not that interested in usability. We want to solve the ‘hard problems’ like making sure everything is tightly coupled and scalable. Thinking about where a user expects a button to be is sort of boring.

So what’s everyone else’s excuse? Well, let’s think about the product owners and entrepreneurs out there. Now, these are the people I probably get to work with the most on a day-to-day basis, so I probably have a better sense of this than anything else. Well, first of all, not every entrepreneur is a ‘tech person’ to begin with. Many of them are experts of their specific trade or craft, and a lot of them who have web application ideas are not necessarily experts in web applications. As such, no one really taught them anything about usability or its important to the success of a web application. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for disaster (more on this in another post, hopefully) because they generally pair up with an engineer or hire a team of engineers who don’t are about usability either.

So, if the first archetype is the ‘non-tech entrepreneur’, then the second is definitely the ‘entrepreneur who knows enough of technology to be dangerous to herself and her project.’ I can’t say that out loud without smiling because it brings back so many memories that are only funny now (after-the-fact.) This second archetype knows enough about technology to think that they know everything, but not enough to actually contribute meaningfully to the strategy of the project. This entrepreneur has read at least one blog post on usability and probably another one about cloud computing, and they are nearly sure that they have it all figured out. So what happens here is that they have become the ‘resident expert on usability’ in the project. This is generally more detrimental than it is helpful to the project. While it’s hard to imagine, the outcome here is probably worse than with archetype one.

The third archetype is ‘generally smart and very impatient’ entrepreneur. This may be the most common. This person doesn’t pretend that he is an expert on usability, but he also doesn’t care much about it. Why? Because it sounds a lot like a waste of time. He just wants to GO GO GO. Everything needed to be done yesterday, either because he has no idea how long it should take, or because he’s just really impatient and doesn’t want to wait any longer. The good news about this kind of entrepreneur is that he is likely to be successful because of his shear velocity in life. (His impatience is his strength.) He is also potentially smart enough to ‘come back’ to usability issues downstream. Unfortunately, his impatience combined with an application with poor usability generally yields the same outcome each time: killing the project. Gotta hand it to this archetype, because he probably wastes less money than his two counterparts.

Ok, so that about covers it. There are a lot of other personality-types out there and a lot of other project types that result in no one thinking about usability (or people who don’t understand it who try to think about it). I would be willing to bet that this sort of thing greatly contributes to the highly failure rate in so many web startups.

I would love to hear thoughts and opinions from others. Have you encountered personality types like this? What others are out there that contribute to projects that overlook usability?

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.