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Good usability is like "water flowing downhill"


"I prefer reactions in which the fabric of the organization is changed so that it's easier for people to do the "right" thing. Like water flowing downhill." Silkandspinach's Kevin Rutherford said that in a comment to David HH's post don't scar on the first cut, and I loved it on the spot.

I've talked about this many times before; my horse trainer's mantra is, "Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard"--but the opposite is everywhere. It's ridiculously easy for me to screw up the settings on my digital devices. The API methods that intuivitely feel right turn out to be dead wrong. I click the button I think will do X, and instead I get... WTF?

And sometimes, many times, those screw-ups are hard to undo. Sometimes, they're unrecoverable (or might as well be, since the documentation never seems to cover the most likely bad thing you'll do).

But while my earlier comments on this were mostly about usability, I hadn't thought of it as a management principle. (Works great with kids, too) Think about how many procedures we see in companies that feel like hacks... workarounds for a system that makes it too easy to make mistakes. And you see it from the highest levels of business right down to the duct tape someone put over the switch that you must NEVER EVER TURN OFF.

If those designing systems or software or houses or hardware or API's or policies or procedures or learning experiences or... if they we would all keep the image of water flowing downhill at the front of our minds, it might make a big difference. It might remind us just how much more elegant things could be if we made the right things easy and the wrong things hard.

It works with pets, and it works with employees (not that I would ever imply that employees are ever treated like... dogs). It works with kids and customers. It works with nature. And that's the best model of all--to make the right things seem natural. If a user/learner/employee couldn't imagine doing something any way other than the right one, they won't have to waste so much time and mental bandwidth finding and fixing mistakes.

That's not to say that everything should be easy and natural. But the challenges should never be in the use of a thing. The challenges should be in doing whatever it is the thing lets you do. The challenges are what makes the activity engaging and, in many cases, worth it. But the tools you use to meet those challenges should get out of your way!

Playing the game should be challenging. The interface should be brainless.

Figuring out what simulations to run for your new business idea should be challenging. Making the spreadsheet do it should be simple.

Defining what your code should do should be challenging. Figuring out which API methods will give you that capability should be simple.

Figuring out which music I want to buy for my perfect late-night-coding playlist should be challenging. Buying it from iTunes should be dead simple (and it is).

So, thanks for that quote Kevin.

And while we're on quotes... our blog friend Rimantas sent me another fantastic one, this time by Zed Shaw:

"If I KMFU (Know My F*ing Users) they won't have to RTFM."

(The quote is in an O'Reilly interview, and Rimantas got to it by way of this link from why.)

Posted by Kathy on May 19, 2006 | Permalink


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» Design with Usability - nay, Stupidity - in Mind! from Forever Geek
"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe," said Albert Einstein. This is quite true, especially in the field of technology. In a world of increasingly advancing technology (power/capacity doub... [Read More]

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Kathy Sierra talks about this in her Good usability is like water flowing downhill post. [Read More]

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Glad you liked the comment! And I agree that it's the same for kids. We have a 14-month old lad, and now he can walk he's into everything. We can say "please don't" until we're blue in the face, but policies don't work with him. So we just rearranged stuff - now he can do what he likes, without damaging himself or anything valuable. Like water flowing downhill, or dribble out of a teething baby's mouth...

Posted by: kevin | May 19, 2006 1:10:59 PM

When I just bought my canon digital camera, I made a walkthrough of the settings. One of them was "quick focus". Hey, who doesn't want a quick focus? Turn it on. I traveled and almost all my photos were terrible. The reason? The feature should have been labeled: "quick and dirty focus"

Posted by: Paulo Neves | May 19, 2006 3:13:48 PM

Good post! Another example of making it easy for people to do the right thing is - as you have done - remove the dangerous and unnecessary "reset" or "cancel" button on HTML forms:

A post I wrote about reset buttons ...

Posted by: John Koetsier | May 19, 2006 6:59:09 PM

Just thought I'd point out that the link in your first paragraph doesn't point to http://silkandspinach.net

Posted by: kevin | May 20, 2006 3:50:47 AM

A concept from the Lean Manufacturing is the notion of "Poke Yoke", or Mistake Proofing. This concept is old hat in industrial engineering, and there's been a small but growing support for this kind of approach to software and software usability.

It's good to read posts that herald the user and support the making of products that are user-centered.

I'm a former amazonian, and I have a post that shows example of how Amazon is absolutely Customer Obsessed -- hands down:

Amazon is Customer Obsessed

Enjoy the Post!

Posted by: Peter Abilla | May 20, 2006 10:12:26 AM

Quick focus or general auto mode works great on most cameras. But within that mode their are modifications you can make on some point-and-shoots that really help a photo out. I say play with them all, think of your camera as a baton and yourself as an adept baton twirler.

Posted by: Matt | May 20, 2006 10:18:37 PM

This principle could also apply to employee policies and procedures. Good thinking.

Posted by: Zaine Ridling | May 21, 2006 12:02:16 AM

I don't know if it's always possible or even practical to make the right things easier than the wrong things. An alternative aim might be to make the right things more rewarding than the wrong things.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | May 22, 2006 2:38:40 AM

I just wrote an article similar to this on OpenOffice.org. You can change the menus and toolbars around an incredible amount, so why not remove the stuff users shouldn't use, make toolbars that have icons for the five most frequently used tasks in the order they should be used in, etc.? (This is something IT folks can do per user, per organization, etc.)

Another angle on this is, "make the software ask the user for the information she knows." Don't ask her what her footpounds per second of pressure are (I'm making this up); ask what kind of car she drives, store some data about all car's recommended footpounds per second are, and figure out the rest.

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | May 22, 2006 12:50:18 PM


A word of warning on the whole "rearrange the house" thing. I heard a tale of a couple of children where the parents had moved _absolutely_ everything out of the way of them to avoid injury or breakage. That was fine until they visited someone elses house at which point they caused complete mayhem. They had no concept of "don't touch", "don't run" or "careful" with disastrous consequences...

Posted by: Chris Rimmer | May 22, 2006 2:24:13 PM

"Tools, Not Rules" is a favorite of mine — same idea.

Posted by: Sid Steward | May 22, 2006 2:57:13 PM

One of my favorite quotes ever on orgs is from a chaos theory business consultant named Laurie Fitzgerald: "Your organization is perfectly tuned to get the results it achieves." Depending on how you feel that day about your company, it's a pat on the back or a slap in the face, but it's always true. :)

Posted by: John Smart | May 25, 2006 7:31:21 PM

Easy v difficult.... It's seen in life all the time with opportunities that come our way, things we 'think' we'd like to do/have, but sometimes our 'heart' says otherwise. When we're going 'with the flow' it's easy. When it's meant for us, water can go up hill. The thing is to listen with all our senses to the feedback we get, from words, others actions. If the going is tough, maybe this is not the best time to push this. Anyone can shove. Not everyone listens, but by 'listening' we may find there's another direction to go. I blogged on this the other day.
Noel Kingsley

Posted by: Noel Kingsley | May 26, 2006 1:55:18 AM

Similar concepts in the world of wikis: LimitDamage goes together with ReversibleChange in making the system tolerant,
PricklyHedge and SecurityByObscurity (yes!) are dissuasive, and a SurgeProtector makes bad things successively harder. And so on. All of these are about herding people around without actually telling them anything, a form of electronic non-verbal communication, if you want.

Posted by: Alex Schroeder | May 30, 2006 6:33:50 AM

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