Brief Thoughts: Usability vs. Expertise


I’m feeling bloody-minded and have been re-reading Don Norman‘s “Design of Everyday Things.” I got on this kick because I was annoyed at Norman’s article in the latest Interactions: in discussing “social signals” (indicators of status left by human activity–for example, an empty train platform indicating you’ve missed your train) Norman has unkind words regarding “affordances”, a cherished interaction-design concept.

Affordances basically suggest how one might interact with an object. Say, the holes on scissor handles suggest your fingers go there, or the beveling of a UI button suggest that it is something to be clicked on. While psychologist James J. Gibson coined the idea in 1977, Norman borrowed the concept for “Design of Every Day Things,” cited it continuously, and basically grafted the idea into the heads of a generation of interaction designers (like me).

Now, Norman is suggesting we “forget affordances” and concentrate on social signals. Okay, Norman’s a bomb-thrower, and he probably doesn’t really mean it. There’s nothing wrong with considering a range of concepts and theories when considering how best to design a set of interactions around an object or service.

BUT: Norman’s casual murder of affordances got under my skin, and I started re-reading “Design of Everyday Things.” I’m only two chapters in, but one of the things I’m struck by, now that I’m out of grad school and less of a usability zealot, is Norman’s apparent belief that any object should be immediately understandable and usable, and, by implication, Norman’s rejection of expert utility. Secretaries should not need to be trained to use advanced phone functions; film machines should be grasped by any ol’ schmo.

I may go to user-centered design hell for it, but: I don’t agree. There is a place for experts using machines tuned to their trained and developed sensitivities. Call me elitist, but I say: YouTube’s singular impact is to prove that most people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a videocamera.

This all made me think of Steve Albini’s (engineer of Nirvana’s “In Utero”, dontcha know) famous mid-’90s rant “The Problem with Music.” In the midst of a wide-ranging screed against the music industry, Albini complains that untrained “crappy engineers” are recording and producing music with (then) new, easy-to-use DAT machines. saying: “Tape machines ought to be big and cumbersome and difficult to use, if only to keep the riff-raff out. DAT machines make it possible for morons to make a living and do damage to the music we all have to listen to.”

I agree. Not everything should be user-friendly.

6 Responses to “Brief Thoughts: Usability vs. Expertise”

  1. 1 Craig

    Fresh from my attendance at CHIMIT, an IT-focused UI conference, I have to say that I completely agree with your last point. System administrators are a great example of an expert community that benefits from expert tools. It is naive to think that all user interfaces (or objects) can or should be understood by “any ol’ schmo”.

  2. 2 Steve Kuhn

    Thanks Craig. Hey, did you present at CHIMIT? What did you think?

  3. 3 Pete Wendel

    True–design expert systems for expert users. Makes perfectly good sense. Beyond enterprise software design, design for expert use is, and remains, a key success factor when creating devices for expert users in medical and military applications via product design with human factors folks.

    I think things inevitably get messy when traditional modes of design and creative work get disrupted by new tools and technologies. Desktop publishing with Pagemaker/Framemaker/InDesign, Music mixing with ProTools, and sharing video clips via YouTube. A lot of people started calling themselves experts that weren’t, a lot of crappy content was created, and it felt to many trained and accomplished designers that the mass audience has dragged down the content into a new low or cultural abyss.

    However, there’s another interpretation that’s worth considering. The these new methods or tools are enabling the creation and reflection of new content and ideas that wouldn’t otherwise exist. It’s the implications side of Gibson’s quip about “technology finds its own uses on the street.”

    As one example, consider YouTube and some alternative points:
    – that ease of use is what underlies the success of YouTube (definitely not aimed at the expert user)
    – the implications of YouTube are extradordinary. This is the larger story.
    It is the social dynamic that’s created via user-generated content. People are influenced by and through others as they look and create and re-create/invent new content. That means much of it does suck, but the gems that are there truly have impact and spark the ideas and creations of others. Not wanting to go on a rant here, so let me suggest two quick clips that make the argument in a much more visceral and fun way than I can in a blog posting: (shorter) (longer)


  4. 4 Robert Brazile

    Yes. Could go tautological on it and say “sure, user-friendly, but friendliness depends on who the use is” but that’s not too helpful. I always had a problem with the notion that user interfaces should necessarily be apparent immediately; it’s a nice goal, but sometimes a more effective UI for the expert might require training or explanation. Let’s face it, as obvious as the desktop metaphor is by now to most people because of prior exposure, the first person sat down at a Xerox Star or Alto who hadn’t seen a mouse or a bitmapped screen would have had to work things out a bit before knowing what to do.

    And then there’s the Photoshop interface…

  5. It is so easy to disagree: make up a weird belief about the person you want to disagree with, then refute the reason. But what if the person never had the belief? Then what?

    What I really believe is this:
    1. Things do not have to be understandable or usable at first sight. But they should be designed with a clear, understandable conceptual model so that once explained, they never have to be explained again.

    2. Simple activities should be easy to do.

    3. Complex activities may be difficult to do. It takes years to master musical instruments, painting, athletic skills, — even driving an auto. I see no problem with that. It is simply that the activities that need to be learned should be appropriate ones, not arbitrary difficulties that result from unthinking, uncaring designers.

    My current talk is called “In favor of complexity.” I’ll be happy to send a copy of a paper on the topic to anyone who requests it:

    Don Norman

  6. 6 Steve Kuhn

    Thanks for your comment, Dr. Norman. While I might quibble with your statement that my interpretation of your Interactions article is “weird,” I of course sympathize with the points you make here. No thinking, caring designer deliberately produces commonplace artifacts which defy use and understanding.

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