The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Usability Can’t Save the World


….well, duh, doesn’t everybody know that? To be more specific, then, usability can’t always save your product or company. Here’s why: sometimes customers struggle to use a product because its core premise or the way it was built is unfocused. The foundation is faulty. This could be because there are too many stakeholders at odds fighting over control over including their ideas which results in a patchwork of mismatched features, or the company culture is so toxic, team members are one-upping another instead of collaborating.

Usability research can’t fix these problems. It may eliminate superficial problems for a website, such as illegible text or confusing site navigation, but if the company behind the site is embroiled in other unresolved issues, the end result of this friction and chaos will show up in the product. Putting a shiny gloss over the product won’t eliminate those disparate features that were cobbled together as a compromise between warring factions or disguise the fact that it is a shallow imitation of what is being done by “the competition.”

Unfortunately, usability research is sometimes seen as a panacea for all types of problems, and too often the end result is that a floundering company undertakes usability testing, applies the changes recommended from the research, and yet the product still doesn’t succeed. Or worse, the company is dissatisfied with the test results, because they don’t reveal anything new or point to an innovative solution.

Usability testing becomes the scapegoat, instead of revealing and tackling the root(s) of the problem: poor concept, poor execution, lack of understanding of the target market, a dysfunctional company culture, etc. Fix (or at least start to address) these underlying issues first, and then apply usability testing: you should see sustainable improvements in customer satisfaction.

What, then, can usability testing do? When utilized with a clear understanding of its capabilities and its proper position in the overall product cycle, usability testing can pinpoint where customers get stuck. Usability testing can also reveal, in customers’ own words, their thought processes and attitudes or desires. You can see the experience directly through customers’ eyes. That is what distinguishes usability testing among other user research methods, and makes it such a valuable tool for many successful businesses. Usability testing isn’t a miracle cure, but applied correctly, it will make a good product better.

-Linda Hwang, Senior User Experience Analyst, Usability Sciences


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