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Welcome to Nirvana:
Naïve Beliefs of Usability

(SIGCHI Bulletin Sep/Oct 2001)


There are many reasons why the Internet might be thought of as a form of paradise, but the slightly unusual motivation I would like to explore here follows on from the proverb "ignorance is bliss". There are two primary sources of ignorance that lead to the utopia that we know as the web. They are both really forms of naivety although one is inevitable while the other is not.

Inexperienced users are frequently euphoric about the web because they can see its possibilities without yet being disenchanted with its realities. They assume that problems they have in accessing sites, finding information, making purchases and browsing in general are because of their own inadequacies - slow connections, the wrong ISP, browser software that is either too old or too new, lack of familiarity and so on. Consequently, at least in the early days, they experience the web through a kind of innocent optimism that is hard to decry.

The second source of ignorance is much more invidious. It is the collection of naïve beliefs that many software and web developers hold about usability. Here are some of the worst culprits:

  • Users are like me
  • A mouse is better than a keyboard
  • More is better

Some of these beliefs pre-date the web by at least a couple of decades, but they are still prevalent none the less. The assumption that users are the same as developers has been a problem since the introduction of interactive systems in the 60's and 70's. It leads to a very narrow-minded approach to design which discourages flexibility and the accommodation of individual differences. We do not have to stray very far from well known and successful web sites to find a variety of bad examples: operations that must be performed in a set order, fields with mysterious formatting requirements or the absence of accessibility features.

Why use a mouse? The answer appears to be, rather like Mallory's answer to questions about climbing Everest, "because it's there". Many web sites would rather force users to click ten times with the mouse than to allow them to type in a simple date - and usually in the middle of a series of alphanumeric fields. There is also the underlying assumption that users will prefer to use the mouse where possible, even though this is entirely a matter of personal choice.

That "more" is synonymous for "better" should come as no surprise to anyone in a technological field. It is almost unheard of for a new product to be labeled with anything other than quantitative superlatives. In software product and web design this focus on "more" leads to bewildering accumulations of features, controls, windows, links, popups, pulldowns, animations, sound effects and other wizardry. The idea that anything should be made simpler or clearer is frequently met with gasps of astonishment from anyone not intimately involved with usability.

What's to be done? First, I should say that I don't really blame individual developers for their naïve usability beliefs. We have all had naïve beliefs in subject areas with which we are unfamiliar. If blame is going to be placed, it must be with the way that we teach technical skills such as software and web site development. Most courses (both academic and commercial) keep the technical issues quite separate from the human. Yet, we should be able to anticipate the problems that will occur as a result. Perhaps we need to take a leaf from the US National Science Education Standards:

"Teachers are aware of and understand common naive concepts in science for given grade levels, as well as the cultural and experiential background of students and the effects these have on learning." [NSES Chapter 3]

If we developed courses for the design of interactive systems that fully integrated technical and HCI issues, we could address these naïve beliefs of usability at an early stage. Developers would lose their blissful ignorance, and users could experience a sustained sense of well-being, long after the initial novelty subsides.

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 33, September-October 2001} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/970492.970504

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