Usability to the people

Convenience and ease of use are hot. Complexity is so 2004.

The other night when I was trying to make my way to bed, I kept stumbling over gadgets, accompanied by a sea of chargers and cables of different sizes and shapes. Looking around our cramped little flat, I realised that they are taking over whatever little floor space is left.

In our household there are laptops (three), iPods (four), a Mac Mini running Windows Media Centre, digital cameras, DVD players, video games, portable games and cellphones, plus all the gadgets that I’m lucky enough to have sent to me for testing. Sure, we are a geeky couple, but I don’t think the amount of devices we have stacked up is unusual.

The growing piles of gadgets and cables have evoked in me a strong faith in the USB cable. Recently, we bought a new digital camera just because the one we had couldn’t be charged via USB. The ultimate thing would be One USB Cable to Rule Them All.

And One Remote to Rule Them All, for that matter.

It would certainly make my life less complicated if the design of electronic devices and their accessories was more heavily influenced by convenience and simplicity. And call me an optimist, but I don’t think I’m barking up an impossible tree. In fact, there are some very promising signs this is already happening.

A wind of change is blowing in the user interface landscape. There is an increased awareness around usability, as many vendors realise the people using their technology really appreciate when technology works for them, not the other way around.

Among the leaders in usability innovation are Google, Apple and Nintendo, but smaller institutions, like New Zealand’s own HIT Lab (Human Interface Technology) at the University of Canterbury, also contribute to the evolution.

Some of the big players with wider turning circles, such as Microsoft and IBM, are surprisingly fast to catch on to the usability trend. But you have got to wonder about Lotus Notes, though.

Websites are being built to be easy to read, navigate and interact with. Popular computers and devices are easily operated and have a minimum of buttons.

Look at the immensely sought-after Nintendo Wii — it is mainly operated using one button on the wireless remote (WiiMote). You even build your 3D Mii character by just pointing at the TV and clicking. Could it be any simpler?

Apple’s iPod, with its much copied scrolling wheel and one centre button, is another example.

In comparison, the remote for Windows Media Centre has 46 buttons. Why can I not just point and click with that remote?

So many companies are showing us that “less is more”. Convenience and ease of use are hot. Complexity is so 2004.

A part of this usability evolution might be driven by our laziness and need for instant gratification. Some mornings I come in to work, sit down to type and expect predictive texting to start. And I think most of us would prefer to turn a device on and get it going without having to read through a tedious user manual (Wii games don’t even have a manual). Am I right?

But the big driver is people. Technology is no longer limited to a privileged group that has the know-how. It’s becoming available to many other groups, for example children, older people and people with little technical experience. It is no surprise that Nintendo has sold over four million Wii units since the launch in November.

But there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, I’ll keep praying for The One Cable and The One Remote that would have the power to stop the clutter in my life.

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Tags NintendoApplegadgetsusabilityGoogleUSBdeviceswii

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