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Strategic insights
Three Pillars of Usability

Written by on November 29, 2007

Creating a usable product is one of the most important things you can do. Where would Apple's iPhone be if it wasn't because it was so damn usable? But many products have a kind of hit-and-miss approach. There is no overall plan; usability is done in areas that seem right at any given moment.

This is a shame because you can create much better products if you just used what I call; the "Three Pillars of Usability" - which is:

  1. Get the job done
  2. Make it efficient
  3. Make it personal

This is how it works.

Welcome to the world of games

A usable product is one that people can use without thinking about it. We want people to focus on the job, not the tool (the software). But, a usable product is also one where you can do a better job as you start learning more about it.

There is one industry that do this better than anyone else - and that is the gaming industry.

A game needs to be playable from the first second it is launched. No person is willing to sit through a 3 hour video tutorial - or attend a training seminar. A game also needs to continually reward players as they get better and better. And, this is really a text-book example of the "Three Pillars of Usability".

Take a game like the very popular Battlefield 2142 and how it uses the "Three Pillars of Usability".

When you have installed the game you can start playing it without any training (get the job done). The game very quickly introduces you to the 3 controls you need to know about: Move around using 4 keys on your keyboard, point in any direction using your mouse and shoot using the left mouse button.

This is the first pillar of usability. You only need to quickly learn 3 simple things to start playing, there is no real learning curve, there are no obstructions or things you need to do before you can start playing.

The second pillar then comes in the form of allowing you to use an increasing amount of additional controls in order to improve your skills (make it effective). You learn that you can use your mouse wheel to change weapon. Use "Z" to throw yourself to the ground. And the list goes on.

You do not need to know about the "second pillar" controls in order to play the game. You can do just fine using the 3 controls in the "first pillar". You can even win a game. The second pillar is additional tools for those who wants to improve themselves.

The great thing about the second pillar is that you get a sense of achievement as you learn how to play the game. For every new feature, you are instantly rewarded in the sense that you can do the job more efficiently.

The third pillar gives the player the ability to customize the character (make it personal). You can change what kind of weapons you carry, and the type (sniper, medic, gunner etc.). You can adjust the sensitivity of your mouse to turn more quickly (or slower) and you can rearrange the control keys. In short, you can customize the experience to better fit your personality.

The Three Pillars in Microsoft Word

This principle applies to any kind of product - games are just a small part of the ecosystem. Another good example is Microsoft Word 2007. Example:

Pillar 1 - Get the job done: When you start Microsoft Word you don't have to do anything to set up your document or prepare the article you want to write. Word has already created a new document for you and the only thing you need to do is to start typing.

Get the job done = Start the program and start working instantly.

Pillar 2 - Make it efficient: Word has a gazillion features, but each feature allow you to either do something faster or strengthen you level of achievement. The important thing is that if you decide to invest your time into learning about a feature, you are immediately rewarded with a higher level of efficiency.

If you spend 5 minutes learning about "styles" (as opposed to making headlines by changing the size of the font), you are rewarded in the way that you will be able to define headlines much faster and it opens an additional set of capabilities in the way that you can structure your document (e.g. create "table of contents" automatically etc.).

Make it efficient = improve the level of efficiency and sense of achievement with EVERY feature.

Pillar 3 - Make it personal: You can personalize the program to make Word even faster and more capable of solving your problems. The simple thing is to customize the toolbar and define your own set of styles, but Word allows you to do much more.

Make it Personal = Allow people to rearrange your product to the features they need the most

Learn how to think backwards

The greatest thing about the "Three Pillars of Usability" is that it allows you to think differently about it. Traditional thinking is often that a usable product is one that is simple and with as few features as possible.

It seems to make sense. A simple product must be much easier to use than a complex one - right? But, simple products are, in most cases, not very simple to use. The only reason why they seem to be simple is because they do so little - you never get to the point where you realize that simple products is in most cases both inflexible and somewhat hard to use.

complex products is not very usable either, but it is because - first of all - the product does not "get the job done" without forcing you to adjust a gazillion things before you can start working efficiently.

This is the problem that the "Three Pillars of Usability" solves. It allows you to "get the job done" from the start, and require that each feature must improve the experience in terms of efficiency and sense of achievement.

But you can create as complex a product as you like - if you use the three pillars as your guide. Always remember the requirements. You must remove a feature if it prevents you from "getting the job done" and you must remove a feature if it doesn't provide an instant reward in terms of efficiency and achievement

Once you do this you will be making great products - much greater than mere "simple" ones.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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