Thoughts on World Usability Day

Via @AccessibleTwitr, I saw that today is World Usability Day, and this year’s focus is on the importance of usability to communication. Now, of course, usability is not the same as accessibility; it is focused on ease of general use, for a mass audience. And, usability doesn’t always incorporate a universal design perspective in which the needs of those who face the most challenges are centered, with the understanding that products designed for that group may also be more usable by others.

That said, usability and communication is an interesting theme, as it seems to implicitly tie back to media accessibility in particular. In the Usability Day Charter, organizers suggest that usability is relevant at many levels – government, health, interpersonal communication – including entertainment:

But, even amusement benefits from usability! Incomprehensible remote controls, confusing instructions and blinking VCR clocks speak to the need for improvement in our media. Usable entertainment systems will make the experience less tiring and frustrating.

Interestingly, this section on entertainment is written about some fairly old new media – television and VCRs – but doesn’t touch on whether there might be usability issues with radio, film, recorded music, or other forms of entertainment media. Even apart from that, there’s quite a lot to unpack here – the charter is implicitly talking about hardware (remote controls) and a kind of literacy (confusing instructions), but it doesn’t really address software in terms of menus, navigation options and other features of digital television. What about the need for usability in online or other new media entertainment contexts? In streaming video? In content downloads? Or the usability issues of computers and the internet themselves? A recent study showed that 90% of users don’t know what a browser’s “Back” button does. Or, what about the need for greater usability in video games, many of which are no longer even particularly legible on a standard definition television? In essence – why has entertainment been defined in such a limited way, erasing many other fronts on which usability might become particularly salient.

In a separate article, the Charter addresses “communication,” this year’s theme:

We have more means than ever to communicate: phones, Internet, messaging and the printed medium. Technology that facilitates communication between people must be intuitive to use. It should have instructions that are easy to understand, and knobs, dials and buttons that do not require constant tuning.

This at least includes newer new media, but it seems to once again ignore the level of software; knobs, dials, and buttons each get a call-out, as do instructions once again, but the interfaces, code, and specific functionalities are left out. Now, perhaps this is done in the interest of generality, as the Charter is a statement of intent more than any comprehensive agenda. But I find it somewhat troubling to see the persistent focus on only the physical elements of devices, especially as more and more of them incorporate digital forms of interaction and production.

Insofar as these “usability” issues with the code, interfaces, and functionalities of new media are being discussed and addressed, it seems to be happening under the mantle of “accessibility,” as with the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which includes measures to simplify buttons on remote controls, increase captioning capacity on new technologies, and so on. Potentially, this could suggest that features designed for accessibility will be mainstreamed through their effect in increasing usability; a kind of universal design, whether intended or not, perhaps. And, of course, there are web usability professionals, like Jakob Nielsen and others, who have written extensively on making the web and its interfaces and code more usable. Many of these advocates incorporate accessibility into their usability work, as in the second edition of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!. Still, for World Usability Day to seem so digitally barren surprised me, and continues to push my thinking about how these issues overlap.

PS – The World Usability Day site has a pretty neat feature in which you can highlight some text and click on a pop-up to have it read to you (by a screenreader voice).

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