Functionality Trumps UI

Don Norman points out that usability isn’t everything, based on media comments about ITunes and Napster:

What is going on here? Both reviewers really like their iPods and the iTune service and clearly consider the entire experience far superior to that of Napster. Yet they think Napster “offers a real alternative.” Why? The business model. Napster offers unlimited access to music for a monthly fee

And the reviewer who favoured Time-Warner over Tivo due to cost and picture quality:

Compared to TiVo, the Time Warner cable box is like going to a medieval dentist. But despite his dislike, he switched anyway.

The IBM CUA “Look and Feel” iceberg made this point in the early-90s. It basically argued that usability is like an iceberg – the fully-visible UI on top actually makes up a very small proportion of overall experience … the ratio went:

  • Presentation (visual representations, aesthetics): 10%
  • Interaction (interaction techniques, device mappings, standard menus): 30%
  • Object relationships (properties, behaviours, common metaphors): 60% (“object relationships” effectively means the underlying architecture and available functionality.)

In any event, Software quality isn’t everything to an organisation, nor is usability. Every organisation has to pick its stronger functions, and just get by with the others. Some happen to focus on usability, some focus on software process in general, and some prefer to focus on advertising or IP protection or whatever else. They’re all feasible strategies. Just beware which strategy a company is following before joining – it might affect your negotiations.

The two most successful PC makers right now are Dell and Apple. One of them makes ugly machines and displays outright contempt for their customers (yes, personal experience), the other specialises in grace and gladly swaps over everyone’s broken IPods three times a year. Total opposites in the same industry, and both companies make crazy profits.

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