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The End of Usability Culture, Redux

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In: Columns > Innovating the Web Experience

By Dirk Knemeyer

Published on November 17, 2004

Like any tribute that hearkens the end of one trend and the beginning of another, my article, The End of Usability Culture, received quite a bit of both support and dissent. The dialogue surrounding it revealed gaps in the article, gaps in how different people perceived and interpreted it, and added new insight and opinion to the conversation. The topic deserves a longer and more in-depth look.

To clarify the main point, usability culture must end. It will end. It is ending. We can agree or disagree, we can like it or hate it, but the one thing we can’t do is change it. The proverbial wheels are already in motion. The tide has shifted, and our masters—business leaders who control the budgets that control us—will demand it. This is an inevitable conclusion, the result of many factors converging at this time and place.

But we can try to understand it. Participate in it. Even take advantage of it. Usability culture has begun its descent. We can remain seated and keep our seatbelts fastened until we’ve come to a complete stop and arrived safely at the gate, or we can pilot. How we respond is up to us.

Usability is valuable

To temper the polarity of this conversation, I should make this clear: I value usability as much as any component of the design process. As a designer, while I strive to get the most out of form and function, I insist on function, even if to the slight detriment of form. I am not for flashy, style-for-style’s-sake aesthetic design. Usability is a critical component of design. But, as so many have pointed out, it is only a component.

This is not a question of design vs. usability but a report on the end of a paradigm and how we can all take advantage of it. The problem with usability culture is that it has stunted design creativity by focusing on the analytical and editorial. There is rarely a vision for what a corporate Web site can and should be. There is little innovation in content or interface, but occasionally in application. There is inadequate optimization of the needs of marketing and brand. Implementation of new and progressive technology lags in a corporate context. While other factors are also at work here, it would be truly prescient of us to control the sway of usability culture.

Usability culture tends to present rules and statistics that have less business validity than claimed, and that impacts more holistic design considerations. The culture intends no malice. It’s just how things have evolved, for many reasons, including:

I don’t have anything bad to say about Jakob Nielsen just because many mainstream news sources choose to quote him as the expert on the Web. It is our collective fault for letting things swing so far out of proportion. His voice and insights are valuable, and he played a visionary role in the evolution of Web usability, but that he is considered by many to be the de facto expert on the Web is evidence things have run amok.

I understand and value usability. I have befriended various usability professionals, many of whom understand the Web far better than I do. Usability is one of the critical components of successful Web design. But it doesn’t change the fact that the paradigm of usability culture is ending.

The evolution of new technologies

There is a basic pattern that all new technologies and industries in a capitalist economy follow:

  1. Innovative new technology is introduced.
  2. Market demand results in much—often poor—copying and repurposing of that technology.
  3. Market backlash to crowded and variable product offerings results in broad optimization of the category.
  4. Market boredom with optimized and standardized products results in demand for innovation.
  5. Depending on the size and prevalence of the technology, steps 2-4 may repeat.
  6. Next-generation innovation leads to the creation of new technologies and products that ultimately render obsolete the original innovative new technology.

This Web follows this same pattern. Right now, the Web is in the process of gently shifting from step 3—usability culture—into step 4. Most Web users, designers and business professionals have not noticed this change happening, much less thought about whether they want or need it. But right now we—you and I—are ahead of everyone else, recognizing the way in which mitigating factors are moving the tide strongly in this direction.

Today, companies like Google and Amazon and eBay can survive and thrive for what and how they are. But things are changing. The world is not static, especially in a competitive capitalist economy. We are moving away from a time and place where those sites, as they are constructed and function and communicate, still work. The way they exist today will soon be obsolete. That is what change is all about. But who will innovate first, and how? Who will move forward and who will be left behind? What new players will emerge to innovate and change the very questions we ask, just as we find answers? The current signifiers of success are hardly adequate to refute where we are heading in the future. The Web is evolving, as all new technologies do. Tomorrow will look little like today.

Why this is happening

In the world we live in, at the end of the day, money talks. That means corporations control trends and make the important decisions that impact those trends. And corporations base their decisions on dollars and cents.

We are currently in the midst of a brand experience stage of corporate marketing. Brand experience is all the interactions people have with a product, service or organization. Every interaction. Large companies are spending lots and lots of money to strategically direct and control as many of their customer interactions as possible in order to create a successful brand experience.

Starbucks is the perfect model for this. By selling an experience instead of a product, Starbucks transformed coffee from a product that people would pay 50 cents to drink in unlimited quantities to something that people happily pay $3 for in the smallest available size. They redefined the purchase category by creating a powerful brand experience.

Starbucks leveraged all of the traditional approaches for international franchised brand success that old generation companies like McDonald’s mastered, then took it to the next level by replacing the idea of a commodity product with one of premium experience.

Western culture has become obsessed with drinking different types of coffee. The amount of money we spend on a beverage that is rather unhealthy for us and not demonstrably more enjoyable to ingest than other beverages is mind boggling. We’ve been transformed into a culture of coffeeholics, and are paying handsomely for the privilege. It is a paragon of brand experience.

And corporate America is watching.

Marketers are smart and analytical people, and marketing is a ruthless, competitive pursuit. Companies are rapidly putting the pieces in place for positive brand experiences, particularly in their communications. Even as key planks like customer service continue to lag, communications are becoming more and more optimized for brand experience with laser-focused direct and one-to-one marketing strategies and integrated advertising campaigns that display an astonishing level of savvy and execution. Sure, not all companies do it well. And we can all cite examples that don’t conform or prove successful. But many more are successful, and the people who execute them are pushing, pulling, and striving for bigger, better, faster, more. To increase their advantage. To find the Next Big Thing.

The power and importance of the Web continues to increase. Cities are in the process of providing ubiquitous—often free—wireless broadband access to entire geographic regions. We can get on the Web from our cell phones in any geographic region. Access and convenience are on the rise. Every day, more people are becoming comfortable with the Web and shifting their purchases, information finding and communication there. Its role and power is gaining momentum, and the Web will become even more important to each of us. We will use it more. It will consume more of our time and attention.

Corporations want that time and attention and will pay handsomely to get it. They’re trying desperately to figure out how to seize it.

Because it is young, the Web is mired in a valley of marketing mediocrity. There are technology gaps and people don’t understand it or recognize how to leverage it. People are not able to conceptualize integrating it into the larger patterns of brand experience. Reader Chris Moritz suggests integrating something like the “How Strong Is Your Brand” test in A Direct Marketer Looks at Branding into the Web development process. That’s certainly a start.

To recap:

Given these points, do we honestly believe that the safe, statistical methodology of the usability culture is going to continue to direct the state of major corporate Web experiences? Once they move past the jargon and sound bytes, business leaders will demand that we do better. They will change the paradigm, whether we like it or not.

Financial industry as a prime example

Many commentators were critical of my using the Web sites of financial institutions as a primary example in the first article, with criticisms ranging from “obtuse” to “myopic.” Given past paradigms and how we have been taught to view our purchase decisions—particularly in the financial realm—I can understand that perspective. But it is simply not taking into account how we got where we are today and where we are going tomorrow. The financial industry is an ideal example of why and how the Web needs to change.

In the past, banking was a local activity. We went inside, talked to a teller (if not a personal banker), and took care of our business. The banks were often local in ownership as well as operation. The center of the business was only one or two degrees removed from ourselves. The interactions were human. Banking decisions—to a point—were made on qualitative personal decisions as much as quantitative financial decisions.

This began to change with the shift to ATM transactions and with the issuance of credit cards from large companies in another city or state. The banking process became increasingly dehumanized and, in the process, commoditized. Many of us go a long time without human interaction in the course of our financial management. The value proposition has shifted more and more to small increments of dollars and cents, away from human interaction or understanding. Each fractional difference in interest rate suddenly holds more importance.

Consolidation in the banking industry also had an enormous impact. Over the past decade we have seen incredible consolidation. Local banks vanished rapidly, the product of buy-outs from larger financial institutions with bigger plans. Mergers and acquisitions occurred at a dizzying pace, continuing even today as fewer (but larger) major players engage in an international battle for supremacy. There is more than just an ATM interface between ourselves and our financial institution. There are countless layers of bureaucracy and infrastructure. The headquarters are on the other side of the country, if not in another country altogether. With each layer comes another level of discontinuity, of removal and depersonalization. We demand more and better performance, are more discerning, and have less loyalty and allegiance.

Online banking adds yet another layer of dissonance. We can now make transactions in seconds, without leaving our home or picking up the phone. In fact, we can even have transactions made automatically, requiring none of our effort or attention. What have our financial institutions become? Commodities. And there really is no difference between them.

The fractional point I save on mortgages by going with one lender, I lose by a fractional point by using that same provider for annuities. They all have online bill payment and transactional capabilities, so there is no meaningful product differentiation from an application or use standpoint. Even if one provider has an application that is a little easier to use, it is unlikely that I will have any knowledge of that. Would making a few extra clicks jar me from my decision to use one financial institution over another? Not likely.

One of the examples used in my last article was Citi. I chose them intentionally, because they have implemented a very intentional and divergent brand strategy. In the United States we’ve seen a steady stream of advertising from financial institutions over the last five years or so focused on personalization, localization, and customer service. The idea of a bank being local and truly attuned to my needs and unique situation was the message from every bank. It got to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a matronly woman wearing an apron offering me a warm slice of apple pie in the lobby of my bank. That is how ridiculous the competing marketing campaigns became.

This pervasive strategy to message personalization, localization, and customer service is the product of the evolution in the financial space that I talked about a little earlier. But Citi looked at the problem in a slightly different way.

Citi’s marketing is based on empowering people to “live richly” in the context of finances and quality of life. It is very emotion-based: no APRs, no talking about local and friendly service. It is words and images about living well, about the heart and soul of people, and what makes each of us tick. It is emotional and experiential. Television and print ads are particularly provocative. And they are consistent across media in content and emotional evocativeness. Sure, they might be a financial institution. But they understand that in order to get loyal, long-term customers in the current business climate, it is not about fractionally lower interest rates. It is about creating loyalty through an experience that speaks to what really motivates customers—their hopes and dreams.

Yet their Web site is in direct contrast to the rest of their external communications. The savvy differentiation and the emotional appeal that characterizes their advertising are lost on the Web. Their site is every bit as uninspired as Bank of America’s, BankOne’s and countless other competitors.

Is it because they think Web users make purchasing decisions on different, more quantitative factors? No. It is because they do not understand how to bridge the gap and make their magic in other media translate onto the Web. And usability culture is one of the key barriers.

If the Web was dominated by the marketing culture of five years ago, they would successfully make the emotional connection—while failing to make the media work in many other ways. You can bet that they will find a way to bridge the gap, a way that necessitate departing from usability culture.

How well has their brand strategy worked? While their marketing and brand are only part of the reason for the fortunes of their company, since this brand strategy began in late 2002, they certainly seem to be doing pretty well where it matters most.

As an interesting aside, reader Tim Lucas provided an excellent example of an Australian financial institution with innovative Web design, in direct contrast to Citi and our other examples:

Screencap of

Not only is it more visually engaging and delivering a strong marketing approach, it is also more usable, more thoughtfully constructed, and outside the bounds of what is typically dictated in the context of a large financial institution’s home page. In short, it is better designed. For another example of financial institutions leveraging the emotional power of design, check out this article pointed out by Nick Finck.

Time to talk about design

Ultimately, better design is the measuring stick. Not just what makes more effective, but also asking how well something is designed as a holistic evaluation of how effective it is. That does not mean how pretty, edgy or trendy it is. It means how well it maximizes both form and function. In order to understand design, consider some definitions of it:


“Design is creation in or alteration of the physical world to meet the needs and desires of people.”

Legendary designer Charles Eames:

“Design addresses itself to the need.”

Modern design guru Clement Mok:

“[Design is] the science of understanding people’s needs and their unique relationship with art, literature, history, music, work, philosophy, community, technology and psychology. The act of design is structuring and creating that balance.”

Regardless of any specific definition, design is about creating for people. Responding to my first article, Dave Heller explored this topic a bit as well (“war against usability culture?”). Dave points out that design is a process of creation. And many of the sub-components that make up successful design are not, in and of themselves, a part of creation. They are part of the design process, of editing, optimizing and improving. These are all important steps, but they should not be setting the tone for the overall design.

Dave understands and shares my goal to uplift (Web) design. Now, with that being said, forget about the word design itself for a moment. It is not a question of advocating design or designers. It is about creating effective Web experiences. Form and function. Optimizing each business need, user need, and technological potential. Keith Robinson calls it finding the sweet spot.

Vision and new ideas

There is plenty of proven success optimizing business need, user need and technological potential in other communication media through the use of strategy and design. The difference is that other media have reached a point of maturation. It is more a technical accomplishment—and less a visionary endeavor—to achieve the highest levels of design success in media like television and print, because the outlying boundaries are largely established and understood. But the Web is too new. We don’t know where the boundaries are, and we’ve been convinced by usability culture to believe they are a lot more limiting and restrictive than they are.

We need visionaries. On both a disciplinary level and within our project teams, we need big thinkers who lead the exploration of this exciting time and medium. Vision used to be the realm of traditional designers like Rand, Tibor, and the Eameses. But regardless of where they come from or what we call them, we need to be led by the people who both understand Web design and are able to innovate in the Web space. Judging by the state of the Web, particularly corporate America on the Web, those people either don’t exist or haven’t exerted their influence over the process. I’d like to think it is the latter.

Hopefully, many of you are eager to step forward and bring this visionary spark to the Web development process. To do so, we need to understand each component:

And that doesn’t mean trotting out the obligatory Venn diagram and talking about the relationship like a consultant. It means really understanding all three of those spaces, how they intersect, and leading good design across disciplines. In my experience, very few people truly understand all of those domains and have the knowledge and experience to successfully execute this for large, complicated Web clients. But we all have the potential to do so.

As professionals involved in Web design, we have an advantage over other individuals or disciplines vying for this space. We understand the technology better than people from other domains. After all, the technology is the biggest wildcard. Not understanding the technology is what creates the gap between where we are and where we need to be. It is the essential challenge of this moment in time.

The Web is something of a Frankenstein monster. At the most basic level it is a crashing together of computer science and communication arts—very different disciplines, to say the least. That is why as an industry, discipline and community we spend so much time trying to figure out how it is all supposed to work together. It is why my original article received so much attention and started so many conversations. It is why we can’t figure out what to call ourselves or the things that we do.

The Web is a big and complicated place. Particularly for large and complex sites, successful Web design demands collaboration between lots of different people, with diverse skill sets and ways of looking at the world. This stage of working on the Web is something of an experiment that we are all part of figuring out, together. It is why the conversation turns into “design vs. usability” instead of “better Web design.” It is why there is a dominant usability culture in place that we must transcend—either on our own or by force.

The dawn of a new culture

It is too early to label or accurately define the precise nature of what is coming next—how it will happen, what the balance of power will look like and what the drivers and key influencers will be. Right now, all of those things are very much in play. We can see it coming and have the opportunity to direct approximately where it lands.

My primary goal was to pull the curtain back and cast light on something important to spark a conversation about making the most of the changes that are coming.

I don’t have all the answers, and haven’t even thought of all the questions, but I know we can all take part in defining what happens next. So start to think bigger. Continue the conversation. Learn more about the things involved with Web design that you don’t know. Step forward and take the opportunity to fill the vacuum. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Become the change you want to see in the world.” The rest is up to us.

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Related Topics: Usability, Web Design, Interaction Design


Dirk Knemeyer is a Founding Principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital innovation firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. Dirk is responsible for managing the business and for providing design strategy, brand innovation, and training services to organizations around the world. Dirk is on the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, as well as the Board of Directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, based in New York City. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience Network (UXnet). He has published more than 100 articles—many on the topic of design strategy—and regularly gives presentations all around the world.

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