Usability vs Features: The Ideal Balance

One of the major challenges of developing software concerns striking the right balance between features and usability — the degree to which a product helps end users to utilize offered functions easily and appropriately.

Most software companies include more and more features in their products in an attempt to distinguish their applications from those of past versions and their competitors. They believe that more features will keep existing customers and entice new ones to buy their product.

But products cannot just be all about features; they must also be easy to use, perform needed tasks quickly, and meet user expectations. An application that is hard to use affects the user’s enthusiasm about using the product and undermines productivity.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review by Rust, Thompson, and Hamilton found that features might work well to get a sale, but aren’t viewed so positively after the product is purchased if the user discovers that they undermine usability.

Correspondingly, in Usability Testing and the Relation of Clinical Information Systems to Patient Safety, Rogers said, “If performance and individual tasks are slowed, then less time or attention is available for the work tasks, promoting mental slips and predictable human adaptations to workload.

Evaluating Product Features

Most users are not aware of the majority of the features in an application they have purchased. Once they learn of them, the experience can be downright overwhelming. Designers should accept that “more” does not necessarily translate into a better user experience.

When developers stuff unnecessary capabilities into application they can compromise usefulness—making the software frustrating, confusing and difficult to use.

The practice also takes away the focus from more important items such as overall quality which could reflect negatively on the brand.

The two main qualities that designers should use to measure the need for particular features are:

  • Effectiveness – Designers need to determine whether a particular feature helps users achieve their objectives accurately. If the feature does not work as intended or it does something completely unnecessary, it has failed or may not be necessary.
  • Efficiency – Users want to complete their tasks with accuracy and speed.  The feature should be understood immediately and minimize the number of “clicks” required to complete a task. There are also other characteristic to consider, such as what happens when the user makes an error. (Read Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think for great writing on this subject.)

Four Reasons to Test the Usability of a Product

Although many software designers release products that are bug-free, they often do not do enough formal procedures for user testing despite the fact that incorporating usability testing into the development process can enhance the product in a number of ways. Good testing can generate the following positive results:

  1. Spend fewer resources on support: One off the primary reasons why users call technical support relates to poor usability. Reducing the number of supports calls from users adds to your profitability.
  2. For applications developed for proprietary use, usability testing can help reduce training costs and makes it easier for users to learn. Users tend to retain their knowledge longer—translating into lower training costs and less time spent learning.
  3. A product that has usability and utility will gain acceptance among users.  In the retail market, these qualities can mean more repeat sales, brand loyalty and. Users recommending the product to family friends and business associates.
  4. For in-house applications, users will find it easier to use the product for the tasks for which it was designed—leading to greater productivity.
  5. Often, competitors’ products have many of the same features. Your product’s usefulness–even the smallest difference in utility can help distinguish you from competitors.

So, with all that said, whether a product caters to healthcare or NASA, usability ensures users can navigate easily and complete their tasks successfully.  Any additional features should only be incorporated if they help users accomplish their objectives quickly, effectively, efficiently, and with maximum satisfaction.

A Little Extra Reading…

See Larry Constantine’s study, Usability Basics for Software Developers, which describes the key attributes as learnability, efficiency, retention of users, error rate and satisfaction.
Read Simple and Usable, by Giles Colborne, for a very practical review of how user testing can simplify user experience.

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