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Strategic insights
The Usability Revolution is over - We Won!

Written by on October 10, 2005

Over 7 years ago I started advocating usability. Back then this "thing" was considered some kind of a lower life form. No developer or web-designer with respect for himself would touch the concept. Instead it had to be technical advanced and uniquely designed.

Everything was done by the saying "if it is hard, it must be good"

People where frustrated with every single appliance, any web site, and any application. They had to learn overly complex things in order get by. Most astoundingly, even though they were visually frustrated, they accepted this over usability.

But, a revolution was forming. People started asking "why?" People started speculating "Why does hard equals good? What is wrong with saying "easy equals good?"

We won

Today nobody believes that "hard equals good" anymore. Instead, if people go to a hard-to-use website, they will simply leave. If you encounter a hard-to-use MP3 player, you will buy an iPod instead. Nobody wants the hard way. Usability is a reality - we won the battle against technology and design.

Consider the websites that people make today. Sites like 9rules Network, Google, Flickr, Campaign Monitor, or this site. If we go 7 years back in time, these sites would have been some of the worst on planet. They are not "designed". Where are all the design elements? Where are the fancy buttons, the graphic edges or the animations? Where is the technology? Where are all the JavaScript? Where are the moving pop-up windows or the dynamic fly-out menus?

It is all gone, replaced by a more usable experience - and we like it. We have more than we ever thought possible - with less effort by anyone. We have regained our focus on the essentials. Today, good sites are about content, what we believe in, what we want to tell, our core business and an excellent workflow throughout.

We have realized that design is not about colors or shapes - but about user experience. We have realized that technology is not about JavaScript, or PHP code, but about our workflows.

The best products today are those who create the best visual user experience with an efficient workflow.

Good products are those who look fantastic, are insanely easy to use, and support your daily way-of-life.

This may require amazing design, state of the art technology all done with a relentless focus on usability - or it might require much less.

The programmers

When the revolution started, there were two groups of people that we needed to convince of our cause. It was the people and the developers.

Converting the people was easy. We just showed them a product that could do the same much easier. Converting the programmers was a much more difficult task. Alan Cooper wrote in "The inmates are running the Asylum (1999)" that developer's wants control - accepts complexity as a tradeoff. This was true for a very long time.

Developer's wants control
- accepts complexity as a tradeoff.

Today, this is no longer the case. I realized this when I watched Bill Gates keynote (media clip) from the Professional Developers Conference 2005 (September 13, 2005). During his presentation two high-end programmers came on stage to present LinQ - a new programming concept by Microsoft.

What is so stunning about LinQ?

  • Does it allow you to make more technical advanced programs?No
  • Does it allow to program stuff you have not been able to do before?No
  • Is it a technical or programming revolution? No, not really

The stunning thing about LinQ is that it is usable. The entire programming concept is built to make programming data-sources easier. It removes many of the difficult hard ways of programming, by bridging the gab in a more usable manner.

Isn't this amazing? At a "Developers Conference", the emphasis is no longer on technology, but on usability. Sure, Microsoft introduced a number of new things, but all of them where wrapped in usability. Avalon, Windows Vista's new fantastic presentation foundation, is wrapped in the most usable programming environment ever.

The usability revolution is over - we succeeded. We have accomplished our goal.

Next Action?

For my part, I am going to stop advocating that we should think of usability. There is no point in telling you to do something you already do. Instead I am going to focus on how to do well in our post-revolution reality. How to actually make good products, the tricks on how to optimize the things we make.

This is going a learning experience for all of us - especially for me.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

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

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