Bad usability and stress


User Experience is a constantly growing field. Ever since Apple released their MP3 player, their mobile phone and then the iPad, users started to realize they could be picky. They realized that they could start getting software that was BOTH beautiful and easy to use and so software companies had to adapt. The ones that did’t realize the importance of user centered design, those that failed to provide pleasant user experiences, weren’t expected to last very long.

But there is one sector where users aren’t given any room to be picky. Partly because there isn’t much to pick from, but also because the user is not the one making decisions about what to purchase. How many people haven’t started on a new job only to be met of a wall of unfamiliar software? You know how to do your job, but filing reports, using templates, handling bugs, reporting your hours – learning all these things can take weeks.

Once i worked at a company that had a system that was supposed to take care of everything from requirements to bugs and documents. And it was flexible too, it could be configured in any way needed. It started with two very enthusiastic employees who convinced their boss to integrate the system into the company. When the boss said okay and started integrating the system, the two enthusiasts left the company. And they were the only ones who knew the system! That left 70 people behind who had no idea where to start.

Hearing this story we can’t help but feel sorry for the people who were left at the company, struggling to figure out how to get started with this new monster of a system. But why do we feel sorry for them? We feel that way because we assume that no system like that is going to be pleasant to use. We assume that any complicated system is going to be complicated to learn. And so we sympathize.

Take a step back for a moment and imagine that a system you are using at work is being replaced by a new one. It could be anything – time reporting, travel expenses, document management system…. Imagine that you use this system once a week and the task takes ten minutes. The new system is going to shave three minutes off that, so now the task is taking only seven minutes. Three minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but what does it mean to save three minutes? It means that a company of 70 people, saving three minutes per week per employee is gaining one hour and forty minutes every month. In a company with 7000 people that number amounts to 175 work days saved in one month. By saving three minutes a week. So what if you could save three minutes per day?  What if you had five different systems and could save three minutes in each? What if you didn’t have to learn a system all over again every time you use it, just because you manage to forget in between turns?

It’s not just about the time saved. It’s about what it feels like, spending that time on fighting with unruly systems. When you are out of time and that report just won’t save and print properly. That feeling that every minute put struggling with that stupid system is another minute of energy wasted. Energy that would have been better spent on your work, or even family and friends. Then there is the problem with bad learnability, making users doubt their own abilities to learn and blaming themselves for struggling instead of blaming the system. If a user struggles to get a system to fulfill their needs, it was probably not built for that user. If an entire office is struggling, it’s kind of arrogant to blame the users.

But what about the stress that this builds up to? We hear about stress regularly, but here’s a quick recap: effects of stress are, among other things, insomnia, overweight, difficulties to concentrate, elevated blood pressure, headaches, irritability… The list goes on. And it does not take a rocket scientist to see that these things doesn’t only affect peoples health, it also affects peoples work efforts.

But then there is another stress. A low intensive stress that occurs when there is no stress release. In the beginning easily dismissable as irritation, but because it is always present, it continues to wear the person down, both mind and body. Triggers for this low intensive stress are complexity, conflict and insecurity.

Complexity can be daunting in it self, but when a person is forced to work in a system that is unnecessarily complicated to use, a conflict of interests follow. The person wants to do a good job, but just the idea of firing up “that system” makes them want to do something else instead. Then there is additional conflict when finally working in the system, where everything takes twice as long, because there is no structured work flow and you know that you have ten other things waiting to be done before it’s time to leave for the day. And for the insecurity, well… If a person is forced to work in a difficult system and having trouble using that system, they might start doubting their own ability. They become insecure of themselves and stress increases.

Now there are companies that have strategies to deal with stress in workers, and that is great! That should be a part of every company policy. However, I am convinced that instead of just dealing with stress, we can eliminate at least parts of it altogether. As a CEO or manager – make sure to talk to your workers about the software that they are using. If there is a problem, see what you can do to help. As an employee, there are a few things that you could do to try to improve your situation:

  • As a worker, try to engage in the process of procuring new software for your company. Investigate what the options are. Ask around, maybe a friend or a family member is using a system that would suit your needs, how do they like it? Maybe there is a free trial to try the software out before buying it.
  • If the software is developed inhouse, ask to be a part of the development process. I am confident that your developers are competent in creating great things, but if the intended workflow is illogical to the people who are going using the system, it doesn’t do much good. Keep a dialog going on about what your needs are and ask to be a part of the process and provide feedback.
  • If your company already has software installed and refuses to replace it with a better one, maybe there are some courses available on how to use it. Ask to be assigned to one of them. Some times there is a feedback button where developers of the system ask to hear about your experience. Maybe your system has one of those.
  • Show them this blog post or anything that you have found on the subject to make your point that bad software is bad for everyone.

When people ask me what I do I say that I work with usability. And usually they look a bit puzzled so I keep going and tell them that I try to make software easier to use. I’m kind of like a bridge between users and developers. And then they kind of light up and say “Ooh, we need people like you!” And I can’t help wondering what these people are struggling with. We have the tools for making better user experiences, there is no reason to keep struggling like this. Usability isn’t hard and it’s not expensive.

A lot of times I hear “But it costs money!” Well, okay. Let’s say you are procuring a new system for your company. You have a choice between two systems, one user friendly and one cheap. I know you don’t want to spend too much money, so what do you chose? Even though the user friendly one might cost more when buying it, the unfriendly one will cost more in the long run. It will take longer to learn, longer to use and will wear users down more quickly, contributing to poorer mental and physical health. Good usability saves money and good health in the long run. Not only will you save time when integrating and educating your staff. You will increase work efficiency and morale. People will start to feel better, more secure about themselves and have more energy to focus on doing their actual work. They will sleep a bit better and concentrate a bit harder, and maybe you will start to think that it might be a good idea to replace all the other systems that your staff is complaining about.

So, which one do you chose?


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