Thursday, September 25, 2008

User friendly? Usability? Disability Friendly?.......changing terms, changing attitudes

(The following post is for a Blog it! Competition in the office…read on)

The term ‘Usability’ was one that I encountered very recently, perhaps the day I started working with Kern. I had heard of ‘User Friendly’, but not of ‘Usability’. I am still trying to figure out the exact difference between the two terms. I suppose the difference is really in the attitude that each of these terms carry with them. ‘User Friendly’, sounds like an add-on, an extra aspect of a gadget or an interface, apart from its functionality. Therefore, a product is not necessarily a bad one if it serves the purpose for which it has been made. It’s a very good product if it not only serves the purpose for which it was made, but can also be easily used. Usability experts, on the other hand, believe that a product is a bad if the user cannot almost automatically figure out the nuances of its usage. A case in point is the Microsoft Excel based, story board tool that the Learning Solutions team has been using for the current project. The tool is great in that it oversees all aspects of story boarding, including the content, graphics, the interactions etc. It gives a certain structure to our work. After nearly a week, we’ve even sort of ‘got the hang’ of it. A usability expert, however, may not quite agree. The point I am trying to make, is that the attitude makes all the difference. And this is an important aspect to keep in mind while you read the rest of this piece.

Back in college, as a part of a course in video production, a team of girls from my class shot a documentary. The project was titled ‘Inclusion’, and the documentary tried to capture the different ways in which we as a society exclude physically and mentally handicapped people. This is an area that has enough scoop for several three hour feature films. Amir Khan’s Tare Zammen Par, is an ideal case in point. However, a documentary, as a genre had certain limitations, in terms of the narrative style and as a result, the time span. In other words, a documentary, unless it is being shown to a group of extremely motivated individuals, can be boring if it exceeds 15 to 20 minutes. The general public, being our target audience, certainly didn’t fall in this category. Therefore, we chose to deal only with infrastructural difficulties that public buildings, public facilities and public transport pose to users who are physically or mentally challenged.

The research phase of this project brought up some disturbing revelations. The complete ignorance of the general public apart, people simply didn’t see the need to make public amenities more accessible to the physically challenged. NGOs and activists, I realized, are still struggling to get ramps, wider lifts, do away with fancy swivel gates and spiraling stair cases which make libraries, schools and even public toilets a distant dream for many. The directors of one of the NGOs we approached had a very interesting take. She said that buildings that have a ramp or a large door to their lift seem so proud when they put up the disability friendly board outside their buildings. It seems like an added service that the organization housed in those buildings provide. Their needs to be a change in the general attitude of people. Until we reach a stage where only disability friendly buildings are made, we have a very long way to go. Providing a ramp or a larger lift is a right, not a favor to tout.

I think the point I am trying to make, lies in her statement. Most ‘disability friendly’ gadgets are made specifically for the disabled. How many mobiles phones and user interfaces have the concept of disability friendly inbuilt into them? It was mind boggling for me to realize that we actually ran a UT only for women with long nails using phones. I mean, it was remarkable to think that cell phone companies think so much into the Usability of their phones. But perhaps a small section of all that research and keenness to make a phone more usable can be spent in a different direction?

It’s the not that we have to make a change. Let’s face it, a more usable phone is really the least of a blind man’s concerns. In a week’s time, he’d get the ‘hang of it’, and he’s perfectly happy to use a computer with software he’s told is specifically made for HIS convenience. The point is something else, somewhat similar to the difference between ‘User friendly’ and ‘Usability’. I guess the point really is in the attitude.


Archana Narayan said...

Vaish, I have seen the SB tool you guys are working on. My take on it (as I was telling Geeta two days back) is that it is not usable. It is infact a nightmare for IDs. It is very confusing and I firmly believe that it restricts imagination and creativity. Like you mentioned, the main point of usability is that the learner should be able to use it and not 'get the hang of it'.

Also, usability especially websites, takes disability as a crucial factor. When talking specifically about phones, it is a huge change that companies are now trying to localize the language for the common man in India. I think it is headed in the right direction. like you say, these companies take usability very seriously.

I think when a gadget claims to be user friendly, they mean that you can learn how you use it quickly or as you it you can get the hang of it faster. When a gadget is usable , user does not invest any time in learning. :)

Vaish said...

Thanks for the comment; it certainly did bring in clarity on the difference between User friendly and Usability.

With regard to disability friendly user interfaces and phones, the point I was trying to stress on was that we are yet to reach a stage when the only kind of phones/user interfaces made are the kind that are disability friendly, the kind that a physically challenged person will not require to get the ‘hang of’. Gadgets are made specifically for their convenience. Disability friendly applications are not inbuilt into any phone or website that is created. Phones are not made specifically for women with long nails, are they? Research is done in order to ensure that when the final product roles out, a customer with long nails can easily use it. I was sitting through a UT a week back, where there was so much intense focus on the size of the phone. The team at our office was trying to understand as to what the correct size of a phone should be so that the user can comfortably hold it and use both her hands to message. Now personally, I was absolutely amazed. I mean, so much research, just to ensure quality in such a small and yet such a crucial aspect of the phone. I think that’s when I really stopped wondering as to why certain phones cost the moon. Again, phones are not made specifically for people with large/small hands. The company ensures that the final product that roles out is comfortable to use. Similarly, I believe that companies should move into a phase where disability friendly phones are the only kind of phones that are made.

Also, if and when companies do make disability friendly phones, they should not be marketed as phones that are meant for the physically challenged. That shouldn’t be used as a USP, just as making a phone usable for women with long nails is not sold as a USP.