This is the first blog post in a series on Usability for Interactive II at Seattle Pacific University.
Usability is the ubiquitous ‘air’ of the design ecosystem.
It is something that we (as consumers) should never have to think about. Indeed- whether or not an app is usable is not something the end user should be calling into question- they should just be able to use. When the usability of a product is something that a consumer notices, more often than not, their remarks are far from praise. How then can we create seamless experiences that just ‘breathe easy?’ There are many methods to answering this question, so we’ll just stick to the prompt of looking at cases for now.
In this post, I’ll look at two Windows apps that I’ve become familiar with. One fails in many places while the other succeeds in many other ways.
Bulk Rename Utility
This cacophonous interface belongs to Bulk Rename Utility, a robust yet hideous third-party Windows app that offers a functionality that other Operating Systems have long since included. It may be a bit of a cheap shot to criticize a free app, but where better to start on determining the good vs the bad in software design? Despite not being designed for the average user, this app could still use a lot of love. Why does this rate low on the usability scale?
No iconography beyond that of the operating system
Hope you like jumping from one text box to the next. Icons help users refer to an existing vocabulary rather than having to search for a specific word or phrase every time they want to repeat an action. There aren’t many places icons could fit into this design, but reducing the mental strain of the user should always be a goal.
Lack of styling on toggles and fields
A lot of space could be saved by removing the toggle boxes and creating labelled buttons that act as toggles. Using a design vocabulary similar to what can be found in the Windows 10 Action Center, an interface item can at once be button and label. Intermediate states (the higlighted box) and on/off states further help reduce cognitive stress on the user.
General lack of consistency and overloading of the user
What does the numeral in parentheses in each box of options mean? What does each abbreviation mean? What tooltips could be added? Is there any onboarding that could be included to help assist the user find their way through these options on their first use?
This app was likely designed by an engineer who concluded that having all options available at all times was the most efficient solution. To some it certainly may do the job, but just because something works doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.
Wunderlist is a slick Windows 10 todo and task app. It succeeds in being usable through several strategies.
Strong use of iconography
Icons are like typographical shortcuts. Users instantly understand that a “plus” symbol signals the ability to add something. Hamburger menu/ellipsis buttons inform the user that hidden content is readily available. Calendars, trash cans, and inboxes also contribute to the user’s understanding of the app’s functionality.
Reducing mental strain on the user can be as simple as being predictable. Part of the difficulty of the Bulk Rename Utility app is that it had no space for content items to breathe, which causes users headaches. Wunderlist combats this with a visible grid system and functional spacing. In addition, Wunderlist has several ‘rules’ and methods it follows- input fields have icons, actionable items live inside similar looking boxes, and things generally do what they do in another place. This is a the building and use of a semantic and visual vocabulary.
These are only a few of the things that make Wunderlist an easy app to use. Comparing these two apps shows that just a few considerations can really go a long way to bring an app up to speed in the usability world.