Usability Matters—I’d Like to Complain about This User Experience!

Usability Matters—I’d Like to Complain about This User Experience!

Christopher Lueg, David Nichols, Michael Twidale

We return products if they turn out too cumbersome. Why don’t we have the same expectations for computer interfaces?

Shoppers have become accustomed to being able to return to the shops the products that don’t work for them. In many countries consumer law enshrines that items can be returned or exchanged in cases where products are faulty or not fit for purpose. In some countries, including the USA, shoppers can also return products for any reason. The underlying construct is that satisfaction is guaranteed: stores accept returns without argument or penalty.

—Cumbersomeness can be a perception issue but often it is indeed related to poor usability.—

Cumbersomeness can be a perception issue but often it is indeed related to poor usability. It is as if manufacturers didn’t consider that the product will be in real-world situations by actual people, not robots or Vulcans (the uber-rational species from the science fiction show Star Trek). As we explained elsewhere (Lueg and Twidale 2018) we know too well that people get tired, bored, exited, irritated, intrigued or distracted when using gadgets. Sometimes they even change their minds about what they wanted to do and try to do something totally different without feeling the need to tell the device explicitly about the change in plan. Regardless, we seem to have got stuck designing interfaces that are more suitable for patient, logical, rational users like robots or Vulcans than for real human beings. To succeed in using the interface we need to behave exactly how the device (or, more precisely, the device’s developer) expects us to behave.

If good usability was a key feature of a product, it would allow us to behave like, well, humans without inadvertently causing major problems. Good usability would make it hard to do really stupid things since the interface would rule out doing certain things. This doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be able to cause havoc even with a well-designed product; however, we would certainly be aware of what we are doing. To illustrate this by example: We cannot expect a washing machine to deliver good results if we deliberately select hot water and turbo spinning when washing the winter woolies, but good usability would prevent us from selecting the (wrong) settings by accident due to confusing labeling of the selection dials. The washing machine interface would also prevent us from opening the door of a front loader while the machine is still working.

As computing and information researchers we are intrigued by the observation that people don’t seem to pay much attention to the value of good usability. Usability matters because poor usability not only means that interfaces may be a little annoying at times. Coping with issues caused by poor usability can eat up substantial time, even if it is just those few minutes at a time, and it can also cause considerable stress, not to mention that unnecessary mistakes can have all sorts of potentially costly consequences. An example that one of the authors experienced is an online banking interface where while setting up a new transaction the effect of using the keyboard arrow keys could either mean scrolling window content up/down or instead quietly increasing/decreasing the amount to be transferred, even if that amount isn’t shown in the current view.

Customer attitudes have changed a lot in other areas, such as automobile safety and, to a lesser extent, nutritional value, or environmental impact of products. The changing attitude towards automobile safety is partially due to the persistent work of Ralph Nader, who encouraged Americans to expect higher safety standards in automobiles and not be solely influenced in their purchasing decisions by price and appearance.

As researchers we wonder what it would take to see a similar change of mind regarding usability. Apart from the changing attitude among car buyers, Nader’s advocacy also triggered major changes in the car industry itself since higher safety standards required different design, production, and marketing methods, and even the media reporting on new cars and their specific features changed. Compared to that effort, good usability should be much easier to accomplish as it doesn’t require new research or new production methods. A substantial body of knowledge on achieving good usability is readily available and customers experiencing usability problems usually means that well-established guidelines like Nielsen’s 10 general principles for interaction design (Nielsen 2010) that date back to the early 1990s were not adhered to during the design and development process.

Poor usability is a social justice issue

In a recently published article (Twidale, Nichols, Lueg 2021) we take these deliberations a step further and frame poor usability as a social justice issue. It may seem a stretch but becomes clear immediately when considering, for example, how poor web site usability and reliability can prevent citizens from booking potentially lifesaving vaccination appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic, as reported in Switzerland in late 2020 and in the U.S. in early 2021 (Lueg 2021).

In the article we briefly review how usability has developed over the past thirty or so years as an applied domain where scholarship and professional practice overlap and intersect. We bemoan the fact that the overall approach of teaching usability classes and training usability professionals, while clearly successful in many ways, has not accomplished the broad impact that we were hoping for: that good usability would be pervasive decades after our community established the knowledge how to do it.

We asked ourselves how we could take the multi-decade effort to the next level. We argue that usability needs to be promoted to become an interest in academic disciplines beyond its key constituents, Computing and Information Sciences. We further argue that usability needs to become a concern and also an expectation amongst the general population similar to what we saw in the context of automobile safety, food nutritional values and (touch wood) impact on the environment. We call this approach Distributed Usability Activism.

Some possible ways forward include legitimizing complaining. More complaining about poor usability may be needed to help people realize that they are not alone in their personal confusions caused by poor usability. This could be seen as kind of social engagement, just like we encourage people to report junk left on public land and to cast their votes in elections.

Reporting instances of poor usability would be greatly aided by simplifying the experience of reporting by having a language and a venue to complain and by lowering the perceived personal burden of complaining (and the anguish that the complaint may not produce meaningful action) by sharing cases of how a complaint led to a change that benefited not just the complainant but hundreds or millions of others.

We might consider other attempts to help us as consumers focus on different aspects of the products we buy, as promoted by Nader’s work on automobile safety and Consumer Reports informing the purchase of domestic appliances. If criteria assessing usability of products were made more visible and easier to understand, this might inform purchasing behavior, and indeed help influence the behavior of others. Two examples we discuss are Fair Trade accreditation and Energy Star ratings. Both involve important aspects of the wider consequences of our purchasing decisions and product use that we may not otherwise easily see and consequently may not otherwise think or care about.

In the area of Information Sciences, we already talk a lot about the importance of access to information, and the unfairness that results when certain groups are denied equitable access. We encourage our students to notice such cases, to speak out about them and to devise solutions to improve access. We believe the same approach can work with poorly devised interfaces that lower ease of access. In usability research it is well established that when interacting with a poorly designed interface, many people blame themselves rather than the product. Complaining and legitimizing complaining can help change the nature of the conversation from “Oh I’m no good at computers!” to “This is awful! I’m not using this rubbish! I want a refund! Better yet, fix it!”

How would we know if our efforts are successful? A true measure of success would be if usability became part of more general conversations, making its way into popular culture through channels such as dedicated usability sections on consumer TV programs, discussions in general interest magazines, and consumers asking about usability when considering purchases. Until then, we encourage educators to continue to leverage their secret superpowers of multiplying the number of people promoting the usability cause. If each of us manages to turn just a few of the students taking our user-centered design classes into fellow campaigners, we’ll have multiplied our numbers in no time!


Lueg, C.P. (2021). Allocating vaccination appointments: Why we should (and could) do better than digital Hunger Games. SocietyByte. First published online 4 June 2021

Lueg, C.P. and Twidale. M.B. (2018). Designing for humans not robots (or Vulcans). Library Trends. Special Issue “Information and the Body”. Vol 66, No 4, Spring 2018, pp. 409- 421.

Nielsen, J. (2010). 10 usability heuristics for user interface design

Twidale M.B., Nichols, D.M., Lueg, C.P. (2021). Everyone everywhere: A distributed and embedded paradigm for usability. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 72(10), 1272-1284.

Cite this article in APA as: Lueg, C., Nichols, D., & Twidale, M. (2022, March 30). Usability matters—I’d like to complain about this user experience! Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 3.

Christopher Lueg

Christopher Lueg is a professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Internationally recognized for his research in human computer interaction and information behavior, Lueg has a special interest in embodiment—the view that perception, action, and cognition are intrinsically linked—and what it means when designing for others. Prior to joining the faculty at Illinois, Lueg served as professor of medical informatics at the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. He spent almost twenty years as a professor in Australia teaching at the University of Technology, Sydney; Charles Darwin University; and the University of Tasmania, where he co-directed two of the university's research themes, Data, Knowledge and Decisions (DKD) and Creativity, Culture, Society (CCS).