1 Jun 2006
Why “humane” is a better word than “usable”
A lot of people call good software “usable”. But what does that mean?
Taken literally, something is “usable” if it can be used. Calling an interface “usable” is kind of like calling food “edible”: it’s setting the bar pretty darn low. And as such, it doesn’t really say much about the interface (or food) in question.
Attaching a modifier to the word may help us. Calling something “very usable”, for instance, gives us a little more information: it could mean something that’s convenient to use. But who really knows what that means? Few people have ever bothered to try defining it. Jakob Nielsen, for instance, says that usability is “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use,” and breaks the concept down into five different components. Yet none of them measure whether the interface does what users need it to do, and it’s certainly possible to come up with bad interfaces that satisfy his five components. Joel Spolsky, on the other hand, says that something is usable if it behaves “exactly as expected”. Of course, exactly what the word “expected” means is up for debate. I might expect my clipboard contents to be permanently lost if I select “Copy” from my application’s “Edit” menu, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the destruction of my data is a good thing.
At Humanized, we try to avoid using words like “usable” and “usability” because we think that they’re confusing at worst, and don’t mean enough at best.
That’s why we’d rather just use one term, with one clear definition, that sets the bar pretty high. It doesn’t require any modifiers, and it doesn’t leave anything out. It’s called humane.
An interface is humane if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties.
It’s really that simple: if you ever use an interface and can honestly say that it’s responsive to your needs and considerate of your frailties, then it’s a good interface. An interface that just works. Of course, this does beg the question of what our needs and frailties actually are. But we don’t just fabricate our own definitions out of thin air: these concepts are accurately defined and catalogued in a branch of science called Cognitive Psychology, which has been around for nearly 50 years. It’s where our philosophy comes from.
Whenever you find yourself frustrated with an interface, just recall the definition of “humane” and you can pinpoint exactly why you’re frustrated with it, and exactly why that frustration isn’t your fault. Of course, most people can’t honestly say that most of the interfaces they use are humane: I know I can’t. That’s because designing software that’s humane is a lot harder than designing software that’s just usable.
Whatever that means.
by Atul Varma