Usability and familiarity are very different things. With enough familiarity, use becomes easy. But that should never be confused with usability being easy from the outset. And even to the extent that some things are more usable than others, familiarity still trumps usability, so adapting to the more usable thing will still be hard for people used to the less usable thing.

It’s really important that designers of services and processes remember that. It’s really hard for designers of services and processes to remember that, because by the very fact of designing them they have an obsessively detailed understanding, which in itself makes them unlike their users.

So it’s useful to find ways of reminding ourselves that even the inexpressibly familiar was incomprehensibly baffling once. I have pulled a few examples out of the Public Strategist archives, for some amusement and, I hope, to prompt some reflection.

Let’s start with that new-fangled notion, the book. It couldn’t be more self-evident how to read a book. Could it?

Beyond the humour, there’s a serious point. The transition was long and slow, partly because people had to work out what different possibilities were created by the new medium:

People were clearly uncomfortable moving from manuscripts to printed books. They’d print these books, and then they’d decorate them by hand. They’d add red capitals to the beginnings of paragraphs, and illuminate the margins, because they didn’t entirely trust this printed thing. It somehow felt of less quality, less formal, less official, less authoritative. And here we are, trying to make our online stuff more like printed stuff. This is the incunabula of the digital age that we’re creating at the moment. And it’s going to change.

But the transmission of knowledge is a big serious business, quite unlike simple things, such as going shopping. Or maybe that can be a bit tricky too. Here’s the training course:

Supermarket self-service

Getting more technical, there is the challenge of making a phone call, including the bizarre concept of dialling a number:1

And if that’s too hard, what about buying a tube ticket and using it to get through an automatic barrier:


The prompt for all of that is that as part of the Cabinet Office technology project I am testing two new devices for work, a Macbook Air and a Samsung Note tablet. For someone with over thirty years’ experience of using computers, but none of using Macs, it’s been a bit of a shock. Using the Macbook in particular has been a really important reminder of how impotent a new user can feel. What should be simple and obvious instantly becomes alien and difficult. And however much I try to repress it, the question keeps recurring, why do it like this?

Now I have heard some suggestions in the past that there is a superiority and elegance to the design of Apple systems which puts them ahead of their Windows equivalents and that Apple has a profound understanding of usability which Microsoft somehow lacks. I have even heard that that may be a matter of some contention between aficionados of the two systems. But the really important point about that dispute is that it really doesn’t matter. Even if it were true that Apple is in some objective sense ‘better’, that does not matter to me in the slightest – unfamiliar overwhelms better.

That’s where the Note comes in. That’s just an android tablet, and I have been using an android tablet every day for quite a while (starting, as it happens, with Samsung products). So instant familiarity? No, instant confusion. Samsung have taken the core, stock android user interface and done just enough to it to make it weird. To adapt Jakob Nielsen’s law of internet user experience:

Users have spent most of their time using other devices This means that users prefer your device to work the same way as all the other devices they already know.

None of that is an argument for never changing and never doing or using anything new. Things change, and frequently for the better. Books are better than scrolls. Kindles have advantages over books.

It is though an argument that change can be disconcerting and alienating, even among those predisposed to welcome the change. For people who don’t start with a positive desire to do things differently the obstacle presented by the change can appear insurmountable even when it is genuinely true that the future world is a better place. Any innovator, any service designer, any product designer worth their salt should be actively looking for ways to refresh that sense in themselves and to keep it in mind every time they exhort others to change.

It’s not just that we aren’t the users. It’s not enough to have a better destination. You have to be able to get there from here.

Update January 2016:  Jayne Hilditch has written a  blog post providing a great example of how to to refresh the sense of unfamiliarity I hadn’t thought of – living in a country where you are not a native speaker of the language and haven’t grown up with the sense of how things are done round here. That resonates strongly with my experience of living in Poland as a foreigner many years ago – the mismatch between the things I found it hard to understand and things people thought might need to be explained to a dumb foreigner was almost complete.

  1. And the even more bizarre concept that were dials ever to reappear on phones, anybody now under about 40 would need training like this in how to use them.


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