UX Killed Usability
Usability is dead (or at best on life-support and not conscious), and I’m sorry to be the one that has to tell you this, but it’s been mortally wounded by UX (aka User Experience). How do I know? Well, you see, I’m a big fan of usability. Consider my blog, Useful Usability, which has the name of usability right in it. I eat, think and sleep usability, which is why I’m so sad that UX has killed it.
Yes, I’m a big fan of usability, but I can assure you it has been killed (or at best is now on life support and comatose). And I have proof, which I’ll sadly but scientifically share with you in a moment. But for those of you who can’t wait and want to know the executive summary, here it is:
“Usability as a term is pretty much dead and has been replaced (not very well) by UX, meaning user experience.”
Now like I said, I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news, but if you are in the usability profession I suspect you already have an inkling of this fact.
The fact is usability will most likely be has been consumed and overwhelmed by the new catch-phrase and relatively new role of UX. The sad part however is that where most people knew what usability was (how easy things are to use, measured and tested via a scientific method), no two people exactly agree on what UX is.
According to WikiPedia, the definition of usability is…
“Usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. The object of use can be a software application, website, book, tool, machine, process, or anything a human interacts with. A usability study may be conducted as a primary job function by a usability analyst or as a secondary job function by designers, technical writers, marketing personnel, and others. It is widely used in consumer electronics, communication, and knowledge transfer objects (such as a cookbook, a document or online help) and mechanical objects such as a door handle or a hammer.
Usability includes methods of measuring usability, such as Needs analysis and the study of the principles behind an object’s perceived efficiency or elegance. In human-computer interaction and computer science, usability studies the elegance and clarity with which the interaction with a computer program or a web site (web usability) is designed. Usability differs from user satisfaction insofar as the former also embraces usefulness (see Computer user satisfaction).”
Whew! That is a lot to read, much less to say. Can you see yourself saying that to your mom or dad if they were to ask you what usability is? I can’t. So, as you can tell, I’m actually not a big fan of this definition, because it’s not very user-friendly (and thus not usable) in my opinion.
I prefer my description of usability, which is…
“Usability is how easy or difficult something is to use. Usability can be measured through a scientific process focused on evaluating user critical tasks and the ability, or lack thereof, of those tasks to be completed by users . Usability includes how efficient something is, how easy it is to learn, and the ability of the item to satisfy the user.”
So like I said, usability is pretty easy to understand, once you have a usable definition.
Proof that UX killed Usability
You may ask how I know usability is dead, or at best on life-support and not conscious, what’s my proof? I’ll show you. Just like a lawyer.
Well, a lawyer that we actually like.
I’m thinking Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. He was a lawyer everyone liked. So picture me as Perry Mason and let us now examine the evidence that proves UX killed Usability.
Google Insights, Interest over Time, UX vs. Usability
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you the first piece of evidence that UX killed usability. Interest in UX has beaten interest in usability and is now more than double the usability interest.
The Google Insights tool provides a useful comparison of interest in subjects over time. The numbers on the graph above reflect the index of how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over that time. They don’t represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100.
As the above graph demonstrates, usability was at about 80% interest in 2004, but has declined ever since and is now about 20% interest. UX meanwhile was at about 75% interest, and is now at roughly 55%. Both fell, but usability fell much more than UX.
Simply put, UX interest is beating out usability interest and has been doing so since 2006. And if Google’s forecasts are accurate we can assume usability interest will continue to fall to less than 20% interest, while UX will maintain at about 50-55% interest.
User Experience Interest Growing
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I now present to you the second piece of incriminating evidence that UX killed usability. As demonstrated by the Google Insights information, interest in user experience continues to climb, while as we saw earlier interest in usability continues to fall.
I direct, ladies and gentlemen, your attention to this graph above, which clearly proves that interest in user experience has almost doubled from 2004 to 2012. Interest in 2004 was roughly 50%, but today has climbed to about 95%. This increase is in stark contrast to usability which is currently hovering around 20%.
Clearly user experience interest is growing at the expense of usability interest.
Google Indexed Pages, UX vs. Usability
And now ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to show you the next piece of evidence in the case of UX against usability, which is the number of pages Google has indexed, or attributed, to a certain term. UX has yet again beaten usability, in this case a severe beating, by having over double the number of pages indexed.
According to Google, there are over 130,000,000 pages that pertain to UX. That’s more than double the usability total. And ladies and gentlemen of the jury, just in case you were thinking there are other uses of the term UX that may be inflating these numbers, I present to you this corroborating piece of evidence. The term ‘user experience’ has far more number of pages indexed than either UX or usability.
There are over 236,000,000 pages that are indexed by Google for the term ‘user experience.’ Compared to the 57,300,000 pages that index for usability, clearly user experience has far more content, by a factor of almost four to one. This proves that user experience, and UX, are overwhelming usability.
Monster job postings, UX vs. Usability
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I now turn your attention to the next piece of evidence that UX has killed usability, the number of jobs posted that pertain to usability vs UX. Note the number of jobs that appear when a search for usability is conducted on Monster as demonstrated below. You’ll clearly see ladies and gentlemen that there are 19 jobs for the term usability.
But now ladies and gentlemen I call attention to the following result for the term UX. When you type in UX into Monster you see a whopping 1,000+ jobs appear in the results. This completely overwhelms usability and its feeble 19 jobs. And should you assume that these may be jobs that only have a slight bearing on the terms of UX I would like you to note that in both searches the search term (usability or UX) is required to be in the title, as demonstrated by the checked box for the Title selection.
Austin Chapter of the UPA Meetings
Finally, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, witness the relatively small interest in usability at the local level. As president of the Austin Chapter of the UPA I’ve been struggling for two years now on trying to expand the interest and activity in usability and user-centered design in the Austin, Texas community.
I love doing this, as I feel my volunteering with the UPA is my way to give back to the community and in some small way help our world to be a better place to live. But I will confide with you and tell you it has been a struggle to grow membership. At best, our meetings average about 20 people (as demonstrated below). Our FaceBook page has 102 Friends and we have 56 Followers on Twitter. Not too bad.
However, as shown below and just as a reference point the recent Austin IxDA meeting had almost 100 people in attendance (not counting me although I was there). In addition, they have 296 Followers on Twitter, which is pretty good. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the Austin IxDA and a happy member. I just bring this up to point out the size discrepancies between a group focused on interaction design and UX, and a group focused on usability.
In addition, I asked several members at the recent Austin IxDA meeting as well as other places such as SXSW about their feelings for the local UPA chapter. Here’s what they said in a paraphrased form…
“Yeah, I like the Austin UPA and all, but usability is just focused on research, and that’s just a small part of everything I have to do as a UX practitioner.”
This now makes sense to me, especially when you look at the job posting descriptions for “UX Designers” or related terms.
Conclusion: UX killed Usability
So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, clearly the evidence is overwhelming, UX has killed usability. True, usability is not completely dead, it lies in a slowly decaying world of interest and roles, now relegated to a minor part of someone’s very large and growing list of responsibilities as a UX designer. Whether the term usability will continue to survive in this world is a matter of conjecture.
However, I suspect that if you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, dust off your usability interest, evaluate the true meaning of usability, which is the extent to which things can be made to work better, and work on educating the world and your part in it about the importance of usability, it won’t truly die.
It’s up to you. Only you can determine if UX will be allowed to kill usability, or if you will use usability and enable it to continue to play a role in the new world of UX and user experience.
So, do you agree that UX killed usability? Are you ready to convict? And if you see usability having less significance, what do you propose, if anything, to do about it?