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Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a usability workshop led by Mr. Uwe Mutz, recognized Austrian specialist in this area. This post is a result of my concerns related to the subject.

At the beginning of existence of desktop computers, we were blessed with Windows 3.11 operating system, which required at least some knowledge about computer configuration. The User square (showing division of user categories) looked somewhat like this:Square 1

Yellow square represents Novice User – meaning user, who has never seen an operating system. Blue area represents Average User, meaning people, which have used an operating system in the past and have some experience. Red square represents Expert Users, meaning people who are very skilled at work with the system. At that point in time, in dark ages of personal computing, people from blue and red areas were possibly working for Microsoft.

Setting up the system and working with it required thinking and some knowledge. In those days some of this knowledge could be gained by reporting issues to help desks (staffed with real people) through peer support, or self-learning. Obviously number of users grew; some usability issues were problematic for blue users, but no problem for red users. Since though there are more people in blue areas, some of the usability issues needed to be addressed – at least this was the general consensus – in order to satisfy the average user. This was mostly done by automating some settings, which created the base for today’s “one click for all” culture. As a consequence, the following has happened:

Square 2The number of users grew; novice and expert user numbers though became relatively smaller with regards to the total number of users. This because more and more of us had some experience with computing, but still not enough were good enough to move to red area.

In time and with every new entry of any new operating system or massively used software (such as office) yellow novice users pretty much disappeared, unless we will count pre-kindergarten kids as  novice users. Companies automated more and more settings, eliminating mistakes (and our learning process) and saving money on support centers.

It also happened that it was no longer easy to move to expert user area – this because if you wanted to learn something about the system, you needed to make an effort to do it, as everyday use was covered by “good usability”. All was (and is) done for you or pre-set for you. You just needed to work, and average user became skilled at knowing where the functions are, not bothering to look behind the scenes. They didn’t need to – red expert users were those who really worked with software, going as deep as they saw fit, poking through code… but their relative number got smaller, making them somewhat of a dying breed. This is what we have today:

Square 3Most of mass used software today becomes intuitive – you don’t need to understand it to be able to use it. We don’t learn, we just point and click. Systems decide for you, there is no human touch or inference possible. We became victims of usability. I see it as downward spiral leading to super user caste and all other averages out there – and the proof of this is growth of cloud systems, offering same for all solutions without the possibility of changing them beyond certain boundaries. Average user, through sheer number, overcame all others. We all have been cut to same size – whatever that size is, like it or not.

Usability is intuitive, it is comfortable, and it is, at least sometimes, dangerous. It automates our behavior, making us (especially older people) susceptible to “fake web site” attacks or such. People simply click and enter information just because something looks familiar to them. But it should be much more than that – good usability should also teach us, force us to think where thinking is necessary or where paying attention is vital. But that already costs too much work… and too much thinking… and could cause too many service calls… which possibly would lead to yet another software package with greatly improved, perfectly intuitive usability for average Joe.

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