Usability: Empiricism or Ideology?

At the same time, usability is also an ideology — the belief in a certain specialized type of human rights:

  • The right of people to be superior to technology. If there’s a conflict between technology and people, then technology must change.
  • The right of empowerment. Users should understand what’s happening and be capable of controlling the outcome.
  • The right to simplicity. Users should get their way with computers without excessive hassle.
  • The right of people to have their time respected. Awkward user interfaces waste valuable time.

These rights have not always been highly valued. In the 1960s, many user interface designs were oppressive, subordinating humans to the needs of technology. Same goes for many websites designed in the “killer site” days. —Jakob NielsenUsability: Empiricism or Ideology? (

Nielsen is arguing that usability is both a series of beliefs and a quality assurance process… I’m more interested in talking about ideology at the moment, which is why I chose this particular excerpt.

Some humanists formed their impressions of the Internet during the “killer site” days — that is, they reacted strongly against the frustration they felt when they encountered the “creative” web pages that feature splash pages, hidden links, and other non-standard interface elements. The Seton Hill administration is very supportive of my use of technology in the classroom. The other day I ran into a former student at a restaurant, and she said she hated blogs. (She had said so during class numerous times, so it was no surprise.) Yet one of the most active SHU bloggers this summer is an incoming freshman whom I haven’t even met. While I’m thrilled at the prospect of teaching students who are more and more internet-savvy, two caveats give me pause. First, the web-savvy students are not so easily impressed. While I want to continue growing as a teacher, I have to resist the temptation to create streaming audio lectures and 3-D games to illustrate every point I want to make. This leads me to the second caveat: I want to be sure the positive feedback I get from the most technologically savvy does not distract me from my need to focus on the basics — routine instructional practices that benefit everyone.

While designers of every medium can and should make deliberate choices to work against conventions in order to make a point, nobody wants to have to experiment with an interface when they are going online in order to rent a car or buy a textbook. I use technology to make certain ideological points. For instance, I give my freshmen weblogs, so that by the end of term they see that their posts are attracting comments from high school and college students who are doing research projects. My intention is to get them to think critically of the web pages that they encounter when they surf, and (I hope) to get them to place greater value on finding peer-reviewed academic research. In media and journalism classes, where blogging is part of the subject matter, students are asked to blog more critically. I’ve blogged before about the digital divide that’s created when a knot of committed bloggers separates itself from the main body of the class. I’ve got some ideas that will address that situation, but I have to be sure that any structure that I apply to the classroom blogging doesn’t seem like tedious busywork to the committed bloggers, and doesn’t make the minimalist bloggers feel I’m overemphasizing the online component.

I’m not quite ready to buckle down and start working on my fall classes, but these issues are never far from my mind.