Usability Is Not a Function of Graphic Design!

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The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines usability as “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”

Usability is essentially the study of user experience applied for the creation of a better  user interface for software.  And a well-designed user interface is one that is naturally intuitive and simple, requiring no explanation or extra steps in one’s workflow.  So why  do graphic designers own user experience in most agencies, when they have relatively little domain knowledge or awareness of the implicit worflows?

Perhaps because it gets thrown into the same bucket as ‘the interface’, or because they both involve the word ‘design’.  But the graphic designer has an entirely different motive and skill set than is mandated for good user experience (UX) design, which marginalizes the UX prerogative in many cases.  Designers are focused on fontography and layout.  I’ve seen first hand that a graphic designer will override UX fundamentals in order to facilitate a better aesthetic flow.

Engineers are no better.  I’ve used a few too many applications in the past that were clearly designed by the in-house engineer with an affinity for the user interface.  Apparently learning a little JQuery entitles you to design the user experience in some software houses.  But more often than not, it is painfully obvious when an engineer designed the system because the UI and workflow match the underlying database table design and the system makes perfect sense if you know the database structure, but often is completely lacking in understanding of the end-user’s workflow.

If I had to pick a role from the production chain to own user experience, it would be the product manager. That of course assumes a certain type and size of organizational structure, but usability should be driven by the person looking at the bigger picture of the product and who is working most directly with the end user.  The user experience should be worked out as a  series of wireframes based upon core UX heuristics, but in response to collaborative interviews with the end user.  User experience needs to be driven by a deep domain knowledge and appreciation for those implicit workflows of the end user.  To simply hand if off to the graphic designer ensures that the user experience with be a secondary priority in a design driven by form, not function.