Friday, January 18, 2013

You need consumer-grade usability

It’s interesting watching the English language evolve in response to technology and changing cultural ideas. Take the term “consumer-grade”, this used to (and sometimes still does) mean, lower quality, less robust construction.

Compare it to “weapons-grade”, a term commonly applied to uranium and plutonium, but simply meaning it is a substance pure enough to to be used to make a weapon or has properties that make it suitable for weapons use. “Export-grade” is similarly used to define food or beverage that is better than average, and worthy of consumption away from its place of production. Some people seem to confuse the two.

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So you might be confused by someone espousing “consumer-grade usability” as a good thing … confused that is, if you lived in 1999 and knew nothing about the history of consumer devices in the 21st century … you know, the whole iPod, iPhone, iPad, Alienware, LCD televisions, Android and “just google it” thing?

Now that we are living in an increasingly BYOD world it is obvious what the term means. It is a purity of user interface design that brings the essential features of the device or application to the fore, and frees anyone to use it with confidence and passion.

It’s easy to see how this came about, “consumers” includes everyone, “enterprise users” are a small subset of the working population, itself a subset. When creating for the consumer it has become obvious that success increasingly comes from great usability – even when competing in the budget end of the market. This means everyone gives usability lip-service, hence the rise in usability consultancies.

Consumers have access to free tools that are developed with such care that they make the average enterprise application look clunky in comparison – and they are beginning to get sick of it!!

The challenge as I see it is how do I as an enterprise product manager bring consumer-grade usability to my products, without making people see it as just a gimmick, or a band-aid fix?

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