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The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Beauty Is Skin Deep: The Need for Usability

As a usability practitioner, I often find myself critiquing things I come across in the course of my day: “Why is this so hard to figure out?” “It’s too difficult to find the information I want—I’m outta here!” “The company should cut down on the number of steps in this process,” etc. My intellectual knowledge of usability principles generally aligns with my personal experience.

Not too long ago, however, I found myself in a real-life version of a test scenario that vividly demonstrated a gap between theory and actuality.

During one usability test, users were asked for feedback on the appearance of two sites, the client’s and another site with a significantly different visual design. The users evaluated the functionality on the client’s site, but only commented on the look of the comparison site. Users remarked more favorably on the comparison site’s design.

iconmonstr-smartphone-3-iconTo my surprise, a few weeks after this test, a website that I frequently used unveiled a new design that was very similar to the comparison site. I unexpectedly found myself conducting my own personal usability assessment of this particular design.

And, I must confess, I did not like the new design in practice. I felt as if it took more effort to just read the content, let alone find anything of interest to me. I had to do more scrolling and clicking, and ultimately did not find the information I wanted.

I realized my conundrum: my strong negative reaction to a design that users had preferred. It was odd that a design I had liked, both on a personal level and based on design and usability principles, turned out to be so cumbersome in actual usage. Therefore, I tried repeatedly using the site several times to see if this was merely my resistance to trying something novel, or a true usability problem. As a user researcher, I know people tend to dislike change, and that users’ personal tastes can significantly influence their experience.

In spite of my efforts, my reluctance to use the redesigned site grew rather than diminished, to the point where I eventually sought out (and at the present, regularly patronize) a different site.

What did I conclude from this unexpected outcome? First, this incident underscored the distinction between a design evaluation (getting feedback on only the visual appearance) and usability testing (performing actual tasks). The attractive elements turned out for me to be distracting, and made it more difficult for me to locate the content I was interested in.

Of course, my experience may be an exception, rather than a universal rule. To me, though, it convincingly demonstrated that usability practitioners must be mindful of opinions versus observed behavior in testing. A visually pleasing item is not necessarily a joy to use. Now, instead of “seeing is believing,” my motto is “using is believing.”

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