Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c01/h11/mnt/34814/domains/ on line 36

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c01/h11/mnt/34814/domains/ on line 21

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c01/h11/mnt/34814/domains/ on line 540
Humanized > Weblog: Why “humane” is a better word than “usable”
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.

1 Jun 2006

Why “humane” is a better word than “usable”

UI Design Fundamentals

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


20 Voices Add yours below.

It seems to me Humane is just as vague as Usable, but it has a definition that can be more tightly quantified.
What is responsive? What is considerate? The levels still need to be defined, but once they are, they are better descripters of what people usualy mean when using the term Usable.
I would also argue an interface is both Usable and Humane if it is convenient to use.

I’d say,
humane = optimized for human brain and anatomy (at many different aspects: work efficiency, comfort, pleasurable experience etc..).

It’s on the contrary to software optimized for pigs (hoofed animals) or monkeys (monkey foot is much more flexible than human).

ICR, I agree that something that’s “responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties” must necessarily be convenient to use–since if it was inconvenient to use, it would have to be unresponsive to our needs or inconsiderate of our frailties in some way.

You’re also right that our definition of Humane, as we’ve stated it in this post, is a little vague. Cognitive psychology can be a big and opaque field. We’re going to try to fix that in the future by writing more posts that outline exactly what our needs and frailties are.

And I agree with you, Tom: making humane software is all about designing an interface for human beings, not just for so-called “novices” or “experts”. It’s pretty hard to call any software out there unusable–just like it’s pretty hard to call any restaurant’s food inedible–but there’s plenty of interfaces out there that are inhumane. Using such terminology focuses the worth of a software product on its interface, which is a good thing, because for the end-user the interface is the product.

I think the principals for a good interface cannot be defined just by one word due to ambiguity and lack of scope. I propose the following to the Humane definition.

* Be easy to learn.

*Should do the task the user wants it to do.

I am sure there are others too. I will have a look when I get time.

From some point of view
every software is a turn-based game,
sometimes with a clear win/lose conditions, sometimes open-ended.

Think about it ;)

Nigel - I would add be able to use without concious thought to those two.

I don?t think you can learn an interface through unconscious thought. After some one becomes a proficient driver they can do it on ?automatic? as the actions have become habituated leaving more brain processing power for other things.

I like this term “humane”. This is more “explaining”. An “usable” thing for me is something that you can touch.
Can I transelate it for portuguese and post in my blog (with a link for the original post) ?
That’s All

Hello Rochester,

I apologize for the delay in responding to you, but I wanted to let you know that we’d be honored to have this post translated to Portugese, and you are welcome to post it on your site. Thanks for your time and interest!

Well, the translate/adaptation is complete, and in the next article i’ll explain my opinio about it


I haven’t been up to much today. Such is life. My life’s been basically dull today, but that’s how it is.

Online Medical Dictionary and glossary with medical definitions.

Setemkia FallingTree
January 18th, 2008 8:37 am

The issues you raise have been part of my design concern and philosophy for over 20 years. I have been at war GUI since Apple introduced the LISA in the late 1970’s.Menus and mice are convenient and ease the initial use of software, but are inherently inefficient. Look at it this way… if pointing and gesturing were adequate we would never have invented language.Another issue is that people confuse what I call “ease of acquisition” (easy to learn and acquire) with “ease of use” by which I have always meant efficient, or in your terms, humane.I find it interesting and heartening that after 1½ decades of GUI as the height of design, many new interfaces are reintroducing the use of the command line. I am extremely impressed with Enso and pleased with the (intended?) side effect that I can no longer accidentally turn on the caps lock. Bravo!

Setemkia FallingTree
January 18th, 2008 8:45 am

I love the way you provide a live preview of comments as they are typed. This is the first time I’ve encountered this. It’s brilliant.

One curious thing about embedded HTML: My <p> … </p> tags were discarded. Granted I was thinking like a programmer/designer, but I would think a humane approach would be to discard newlines in the presence of <p>, rather than discarding <p>. That the paragraph tags were not honored came as a complete surprise because the live preview did honor them.

I write software for a living and user-friendly is what most people call it, though this is also a vague term. There is something to be said for software that functions like and anticipates that of the human brain. A mindmap will branch out thoughts and plans the way your brain does, synaptically. Enso lets you think the way you do, catches the slack when you can’t remember, and helps you do what you do all the time but easier. It is less like using a computer, and more like a cybernetic implant. It functions and moves with you, based on you, and doesn’t bother with UI or “the way it should be”, it simple works the way I do.

Fernando Toloza
July 2nd, 2009 7:39 pm

i’m thinking ergonomic… doesn’t ring a bell to anyone?

same deal with virtual interfaces and/or services to me

Hello, you used to write excellent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring? I miss your tremendous writings. Past several posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

Nerve roots can be compressed due to a prolapsed or herniated disk, exerting
pressure over a spinal nerve. -Pseudoclaudication (burning
within the buttock and thighs with walking or standing that improves with sitting or resting).
There are many means by which you’ll want to distinguish kidney lower back pain from normal lower lumbar pain.

When someone writes an paragraph he/she maintains the plan of a
user in his/her mind that how a user can know it.
So that’s why this paragraph is outstdanding.


An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto
a coworker who had been doing a little research on this.

And he actually ordered me lunch because I stumbled upon it for him…

lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!

But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this topic here on your blog.


Please respect this public space




Live comment preview