What is usability? I've read definitions that say usability and user-experience are entirely separate; that usability is a subsection of user experience; or that they are just terms that express different facets of the same subject matter.
Although I now see that many aspects of both usability and user experience design are common sense concepts and practices, it's only over the past year or so that I've become consciously aware of the reason these things can exist as a separate discipline from web design, and the level of complexity therein. Myself, I started out 11 years ago as a web developer, became a designer, and now I'm trying to get a better understanding of usability.
So to answer my own question: until I read a convincing argument to the contrary (so possibly as far as next Thursday then), usability is the study of how easy things are to use, and forms a part of the overall user experience.
The reason I bring this up is that the level of usability on the Internet has always seemed remarkably inconsistent to me. Why are some sites a pleasure where others are a chore? Why is it not second-nature amongst web designers and developers to produce things that 'just work'? And why does the base level of usability seem so low in comparison to other things we use on a daily basis, like cars or kitchen equipment?
On hearing this all-too-frequent complaint from me, a colleague recently commented that 'anyone can build a website, but not everyone can build a car'. But is this true? Does an area of design have to become the rarefied domain of specialists in order to be any good? Or are there other factors that explain why it is basically impossible to buy a truly bad car in the UK today, and yet paying my electricity bill online is about as easy as knitting a bicycle out of soup.
Perhaps the point I am clumsily trying to make is that successfully designing things for physical interaction seems easier to get right than designing for virtual interaction. For example, the implement that you almost certainly picture when you think of a potato peeler is basically unchanged from the original design from over 100 years ago. Supposedly invented sometime in the 19th century by a blacksmith named Thomas Williams, the arrangement of a handle with a peeling implement mounted in it like a knife is still made today.
Likewise the fixed telephone handset, though subject to changing fashions, has remained remarkably similar to the first combined speaker-microphone unit created (probably the Western Electric model 102 of 1927).
And this is all good and pretty obvious - we are, by and large, physically similar, so imagining how another human will use what you've designed is relatively easy. We do not, however, think the same.
I cannot decide if it is a failing that we often lack empathy for the mindset of others, or if the failure is to imagine that there might be one solution to fit all users in the first place. This, I suppose, is probably the first small leap I have made so far in my understanding of usability - what might seem obvious and logical, built-for-idiots, even, to you, could quite reasonably be a mystery to me.
To return to the car industry again, I think a good example of this gulf between physical design and virtual design was contained within the first BMW iDrive system. In 2001, BMW were the first manufacturer to try and combine all of the functionality needed to control the various systems of the car into a single screen and controller: a large aluminium dial located between the driver and passenger that could be moved, rotated and clicked. At the time it was received to poor critical acclaim for being too difficult to use and not intuitive enough. The interesting part is that the problem was a lack of usability within the software, not the physical controls. Take a look at almost any new luxury car today and you'll see the same kind of controller located in the same place - it's just that the software works rather better these days.
Returning to software and the web, there are instances where interface designers have used virtual representations of real things as a means of improving usability - buttons that can be pushed, tabs that can be selected, pages that can be turned. Essentially, recognisable physical 'interface' controls that most people already understand. But this only takes us so far. Established design patterns help - most users are now familiar with the concepts of left navigation, or crumb-trails on a website. I wonder if beyond this we're simply relying on guesswork and user testing. And what happens in the all-too frequent case that your client doesn't have the budget for user testing? To this I as yet have no answer.
I rather enjoyed the furore over Ryan Carson's comment last month that 'UX Professional isn't a real job'. Whilst I do not necessarily agree, I think I do see what he was getting at. In the arena of physical design, the very definition of designer is someone who decides how the object will work and be used, as well as its aesthetics. You probably wouldn't for instance, get someone to come up with a creative concept for a teapot, only to have a second person add a spout and a handle so it could actually be used.
I think website design has traditionally been very much an offshoot of print design, and understandably so. In the earliest iterations of the web the user was expected to read more and interact less. So we ended up with people who might otherwise have been designing magazines, books or posters working on what were, essentially, user interfaces. This resulted in a lot of guesswork and assumptions about what other people would find easy to use. It seems to me that maybe the persistence of this idea (that the web and print are very similar) is one of the prime causes for my original complaint - the poor base level of usability on the web.
To round off this deranged mess of questions, I think there is one other aspect of web site development to consider: cost, or more accurately, lack thereof. Now, I do enjoy a good car-based analogy, as you will no doubt have realised if you have got this far, so here is another...
It is doubtless true that the sheer expense of developing a new car is nothing if not an encouragement to get the job right first time. This almost certainly explains why the modern car industry is more or less devoid of serious usability failings. Your customers are paying a great deal of money for the product, so a less-than-perfect product is unlikely to be a sales success - disastrous for any manufacturer.
On the web, development is comparatively cheap, and the end product is free at point of use (unless your site sits behind a 'pay wall', of course). A user is far more likely to put up with a faulty or difficult-to-use product that was free, than one they had to pay for. This all adds up to a situation where, until one of the giants of the web (Google, Facebook, Twitter, or even the BBC) moves the game on in terms of usability, there is little incentive for others to pay very much attention.
Whilst there is clearly an obvious, even desperate need for usability professionals within this industry, I would also like to see a change in the overall perception of what web design means. The Web Designer should be at least as concerned with the ergonomics of the design as with the aesthetics. I think when this is the norm rather than the exception we'll see a huge improvement in the base level of usability across the web, and hopefully a huge drop in the amount of time I spend complaining about it.