Usability in the Physical World vs. on the Web

Some years ago, I was at our UKCS conference in Sydney, Australia, and at the time the Starbucks coffee chain had just opened up in Australia and they were distributing in their coffee shops this brochure finding your favorite cup, a guide to ordering your Starbucks coffee. This is a cup of coffee that’s so complicated it requires no great fan Foldes worth of instructions, really a manual for how to get your coffee. And so that’s a clear indication of bad usability.

One of the reasons is that they made up their own language here. Step two is the size. So to get a small cappuccino, you order a tall to get a midsize cappuccino, you order a grand, and to get a large cappuccino, you order a venti. Now, in which language does Granda mean medium? Not in Italian, that’s for sure. And so making up your own language, that’s a blatant violation of one of our most basic usability guidelines, to speak the uses language, not make up your own words and their own meanings, which makes things much more complicated. Now, you might say Starbucks has actually proven to be a very successful company. So what’s the use of all these usability guidelines? Well, they are still very useful when designing for the virtual world. Starbucks is in the physical world, but for the virtual world, the online world, interactive world, like if you’re designing a website, usability requirements are much stricter than the physical world. If you are in a coffee shop and it takes, let’s say, one minute more than it should take to order a cup of coffee, you are still going to stay there because it’s much more time consuming and complicated to walk out of that coffee shop, walk down the street, or maybe even drive across town into another coffee shop and place your order there on the contrast. And the website uses probably arrived at your website through a search engine. That means that they have nine other competing sites, just one click away. And so it’s very easy for them to go someplace else. A one minute delay of hassle, man. They’re out of there long before that. Another difference is that in the physical world, you have an actual human to help you. So if you walk up to the counter and you say, I’d like to get a mid-sized cappuccino, well, maybe that kind of snooty person is going to say, well, around here, we call that a grand, actually, but they’re still going to give you a mid-sized cappuccino. And so that’s much more flexibility, much more ability for the customer to deviate from the expected a prescribed script of behavior on the conscious, on computers.

Yeah, they’re getting a bit of artificial intelligence these days, but it’s not nearly the same as real intelligence, an actual human being there in terms of flexibility. Computers are very restrictive, very literal in what you can do there. And so, again, that means that people have to adapt to the computer, which is what we don’t want. And so computers need to have much higher usability for it to be a pleasant, good user experience.

So keep that distinction in mind between the physical world where people will suffer a little bit more and still be there versus the virtual world, a Web site, any kind of application or interactive thing that you’re designing, what these requirements are much stricter.

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