marti_hearst's picture
Computer Scientist, UC Berkeley, School of Information; Author, Search User Interfaces
Computer Scientist, UC Berkeley, School of Information

The Rise of Usability

I am optimistic that the values and principles of good user interface design will increasingly be practiced by technology designers and expected by technology users.

The design of a computer user interface can influence whether the outcome of an election is fair, a patient receives the right medicine, or a helicopter pilot makes a safe landing. Perhaps even more importantly, when technology is designed to mesh well with how people think and how they want to live, then it enhances and enriches their lives. Poorly designed interfaces that treat people inhumanely can contribute to the feelings of apprehension that people often associate with our technology-saturated world.

Good interface design is currently more of a practice than a science, although the field of human-computer interaction makes use of results from cognitive science and relevant branches of psychology where applicable. The rise of the World Wide Web has accelerated advances in and understanding of usability, for main two reasons. First, before the web, most complex computer interfaces were visible only to those who could afford to purchase the expensive software packages. Most users would not see more than one design for a given application. The web, in yet another example of its leveling effect, allows nearly everyone to see nearly every interface. Thus designers can learn rapidly from what others have done, and users can see if one web site's experience is substandard compared to others. Second, the default setting for web pages and browsers allows designers to freely see the source code behind each web page, and thus learn from one another how to code the best designs. The rise of the web has increased consumer demand and awareness of good design, and in my observation has increased the perceived value of user interface design within computer science departments.

Unfortunately, misguided views about usability still cause significant damage in today's world. In the 2000 U.S. elections, poor ballot design led thousands of voters in Palm Beach, Florida to vote for the wrong candidate, thus turning the tide of the entire presidential election. At the time, some observers made the ignorant claim that voters who could not understand the Palm Beach butterfly ballot were not bright enough to vote. I wonder if people who made such claims have never made the frustrating "mistake" of trying to pull open a door that requires pushing. Usability experts see this kind of problem as an error in the design of the door, rather than a problem with the person trying to leave the room.

It appears that some Florida election officials did not learn the lessons of the 2000 election. In the Sarasota County, Florida election of 2006, evidence suggests that poor design of an electronic ballot led to massive under voting. One in seven voters did not mark any choice in a hotly contested congressional race that was decided by fewer than 400 votes. Usability mistakes similar to those in Palm Beach were repeated in Sarasota. But it is unfair to expect election officials to be experts in usability and information design; rather what is lacking is a general recognition that an understanding of how people think and use technology is integral to ballot design and fair elections. Just as computer experts design and maintain the e-voting machines, usability experts should assess all ballot designs before they are released to the public. And in the future we may well see automated usability checkers, akin to grammar checkers in word processors, for applications such as ballot design.

Ballot design is just one example for which interface design matters. There is ample evidence that good design reduces errors and increases enjoyment of the use of technology. Fortunately, an appreciation of the importance of good design for human use of technology is experiencing an increasingly widening scope.