Capability vs Usability

Posted by Colin Higton

We spent some time in the studio this week looking into a well known Content Management System (CMS) for producing websites. Our reason for looking was that our client has invested in this system but struggles to use it for themselves – so they wanted us to look at using it to produce and edit a new website for them.

It’s not an unfamiliar problem. We have done the same exercise before with other systems, and found that whilst we are able to use them effectively, they are frustrating and restrictive – even for users with expert knowledge.

Which is a real shame, because this system for example has some great features – and some very powerful tools. So in terms of capability it was very impressive – but in terms of usability it was a disaster.

The system is meant to give its users the power to build and manage their own websites, and to make that process as simple and painless as possible for people who have no training in web design. In fairness to the developers the features were all there – we discovered many of them and were suitably impressed, and I’m fairly confident that if we had carried on searching we would have found the rest.

But there’s the rub – ‘if we had carried on searching’. The developers had invested a great deal of time and effort (and money) into developing and installing all the features, but they hadn’t stopped to think about the people using it.

It’s a bit like muscle cars. I find Top Gear difficult to watch these days without losing the will to live, but when I’ve seen it in the past they have often featured the latest fantastic muscle car (usually American) with a hugely powerful engine – but then take it round the track and show that it just isn’t possible to use most of that power because the handling or the brakes just aren’t up to it.

So you’re left with a car that has 4 times the power of the sporty coupe next to you, but as soon as it rains they leave you standing as you try to coax ‘the beast’ around the greasy corners.

There’s no point having all those features if it just makes the system too complicated for the target user – burying all the features they want to use right now in amongst all the ones they don’t – but might do eventually.

The situation is even worse if the developers don’t work to create an intuitive and simple interface. To stretch the muscle car simile just a little further – the cars that do manage to use all their power are the ones that have been designed that way from the start. With the right suspension, the right brakes and the right tyres, all that power suddenly comes into it’s own.

It’s the real challenge we face today for technology in general – and of the web in particular. It’s not really about creating the capability to do things – much of that already exists, and is already far beyond what most people are doing with it.

The real challenge is to create the usability to enable people to actually do something with that technology and to catch up with the opportunities the internet presents.

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