November 9, 2004
This Human Factors International presentation (ppt) references something called a Columbia Obstruction Device:
I couldn't find any actual references to the Columbia University science experiment they're referring to, but it certainly seems plausible enough. The parallel with users and usability is natural. Either maximize the cheese (make your application compelling), or minimize the shock (make your application easy to use):
We may think our applications are compelling, but I seriously doubt they look that compelling to users. Unless you are providing users free mp3s, or access to pornography, it's highly unlikely you will ever have enough cheese to overcome even the mildest of electric shocks. The only variable you can really control is your application's usability. The barrier to entry has to be absurdly low to even get people to look at your software-- much less use it.
This is something that Joel talks about, too:
But there's a scary element of truth to it -- scary to UI professionals, at least: an application that does something really great that people really want to do can be pathetically unusable, and it will still be a hit. And an application can be the easiest thing in the world to use, but if it doesn't do anything anybody wants, it will flop. UI consultants are constantly on the defensive, working up improbable ROI formulas about the return on investment clients will get from their $75,000 usability project, precisely because usability is perceived as "optional," and the scary thing is, in a lot of cases, it is. In a lot of cases. The CNN website has nothing to be gained from a usability consultant.
Delicious cheese is a rare luxury that most developers working on typical business applications will never have. What kind of crazy user looks forward to using a document management system? If you want to have any hope at all of users actually using your application, forget about the cheese: just make sure you aren't shocking your users.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Nice pictures. :-)
What kind of crazy user looks forward to
using a document management system?
Well, one who's spent years working with filing cabinets. Your example might not be perfect, in the sense at least that there are people for whom a DMS is in fact delicious cheese indeed, and they will endure a fairly high dose of shock to get it. (Document management was my entry into computers, which is why I have an opinion on this.)
But your point is well taken. Only the geekiest nerds seek out a camera, say, that has an extra high quotient of fiddly bits, the better to "have control" over the camera. The rest of humanity just wants point-and-shoot, and perfect results also, please.
I hate Windows, yet I use it every day. :/
there are people for whom a DMS is in fact delicious cheese indeed, and they will endure a fairly high dose of shock to get it.
Well it's not the "management" part that users are interested in. The documents, perhaps. Joel mentions this in his CNN example, arguing that it doesn't matter how poorly or well designed CNN is because the content is so compelling. Now, I'm not sure that is entirely true, since you can get news from many different sources, but it's a reasonable observation.
In some sense, all software is an electric shock-- an obstruction to a goal. We don't care about using software, we care about reaching our goal, whatever that is.
Since it's nearly impossible to tell what goals are worth reaching, or what users will ultimately want, I say focus on reducing the shock. That will ALWAYS benefit the project.. even if you are working on a corporately mandated app (fex, you must use our crappy web app to enter your hours worked every day-- whee!) which nobody actually WANTS to use.
Hell, even mention usability to most developers and you'll get a "Huh?". Excellent article.
I hate Windows, yet I use it every day. :/
Just like any other decent, god-fearing person should do ;)
... I guess that Microsoft got the biggest piece of cheese by their side on that one over Linux... With a Windows-running machine rather than Linux, you have a wider array of software available for you... In my case, Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Freehand (due to my graphic designer job) are the two main reasons stopping me from switching to Linux (which, by the way, both programs are also perfect examples of afwul UIs but great usability).
You know, that graph of shock size vs. cheese size makes no sense.
i agree with fluffy; the graph as it is now doesn't show the "napsters" -- high shock but high cheese -- as being on the "go" side. the graph should really be shock on the y axis and cheese on the x axis, with the line being the "acceptible" ratio. i expect the line would look like an exponential curve with a limit near the high end of the cheese axis.
Well, I didn't make the graph :)
But I agree, it only covers the simplest usable vs. not-usable scenario. I doubt usability consultants like HFI want to acknowledge the fact that, if you have enough cheese, you don't need ANY usability.
I stand by my original assertion, though: there are a handful of apps with the kind of cheese you'd need to get away with those interfaces. And the odds of us working on one of them are, uh, slim.
It's hard to argue with this equation, as far as it goes. But it is unfortunate that "usability" has come to be the name that user-experience practitioners work under. (This is of course partly our own fault.) Nevertheless, a good user experience process emphasizes the creation of useful software first, and moves later in the lifecycle to methods that promote usability. Read more at http://www.36partners.com/thoughts.htm
I think the "Columbia Obstruction Device" is something that HFI made up.
But your point is well taken. Only the geekiest nerds seek out a camera, say, that has an extra high quotient of fiddly bits, the better to have control over the camera. The rest of humanity just wants point-and-shoot, and perfect results also, please.
As much as the analogy holds, the "shock" is relative to other options. I see too many designers worried about "shock" that is insignificant compared to the alternatives.