The heart of usability goes after the user. From a user interaction standpoint, the purpose of such design is to enhance the environment allowing each and every user to experience it in a simple, native, and unique way. To accomplish this, problems must be solved. Just a like a developer solves a problem through code, a usability designer solves a problem through design and interaction.
I’m writing this post as I feel its important to stress that to accomplish excellent usability, you have to approach the environment taking in a 360 degree view. What I mean by this is, many times developers and (or) designers bring out this great awesome new feature or interface but don’t account for the other existing factors that are inadvertently “removed” or “hindered from use” due to how the implementation is done. Also, solving one problem doesn’t mean you solve them all. Introducing something new is great but can cause problems in the interaction itself by offering a limited field of usability.
I’m going to use the following example to illustrate my thoughts and conclude with how I feel this scenario applies.
Search Engines in Safari for iOS versus Search Engines in Safari for OS X
Safari on OS X has had a slick feature for a while that allows the user to change the default search engine right from the search field. Now that Safari has a unibar designed (part of Mountain Lion), it’s now done through the address bar. When the URL field is empty, a magnifying glass will appear on the far left. Clicking it will drop down a small window and give you an option to switch to another search engine in the list. Clicking a new search engine will change the default search engine. The default search engine can also be set in Safari’s preferences.
With the way OS X has it set up, it would be easy to gradually add new search engines to choose from because they are easily accessible from anywhere. Even though a user may switch often, it’s excellent usability to allow the user to switch at anytime without going through dialog windows, settings, or by doing numerous steps. Convenience is key.
On iOS, it’s much different. The way you can switch search engines is to go into Settings > Safari > Search Engine and change it. And technically, by doing this you’re doing two different things. First, you’re changing the default browser. Second, you’re changing the search engine you wish to use in a session if you’re currently browsing. What I mean by this is, if I want to switch to searching Bing in my session from the search field, I’d have to switch my default engine in Settings so that I can. The way iOS has it setup would make it extremely difficult to continue adding more search engines because it’s difficult for the user to switch them quickly within the current view. Again, convenience is key. Having the ability to switch search engines from within Safari is key.
When it comes to searching the web, I feel that it’s extremely important to have “liquid methods;” actions and tasks that can be done dynamically right where you are without having to pull yourself away from the current view. Switching search engines I think is one of them. OS X has got this covered, so how could iOS improve? Here’s my solution. Give Safari in iOS a unibar design. Offer the magnifying glass icon on the far left and allow the user to switch simultaneously right in Safari without having to go into Settings to switch it so it can be done natively within the address bar.
So the natural follow-up question would be “how does the scenario above apply to a 360 degree view of usability (or initially the point of this post)?“ This scenario gives an example of offering a feature that may not necessarily be “user-friendly” in all cases. The problem being solved was the fact that users need a default search engine option. The solution was offering a way to offer a setting to set the default search engine. But, to my point about a continued 360 degree spectrum, another problem arose. The next logical step became “I’ve given them more than one option for a search engine but what about when they want to switch search engines easily?” OS X allowed the user to switch dynamically. iOS hasn’t followed in its footsteps yet.
Problem solving is a process. Solving one problem doesn’t solve them all. When thinking of usability and interaction design, remember that it is on a 360 degree spectrum. Features, actions, methods, and tasks all loop around and interconnect with one another. To be cliche, the quote the expresses it in the most down-to-earth way would be “What goes around comes around.” So when introducing something new or changing something existing, take this approach and look from a bird’s eye view of how your project, application, or tweak will offer something unique as well as how it will potentially shift how other things work. Follow the trail all the way around making sure each step of the process is simple and user intuitive. And when you reach the other side back to where you started, you know you’ve created something amazing.
© 2012 Joshua Tucker