My friend Jeff recently wrote a blog post called “Does Usability Really Matter?“. I found it interesting, and thought that he was on to something, but I figured I’d contribute a few extra thoughts.

He talks quite a bit about the indicator lights on his home theatre being quite mismatched. Some are red, some green, some amber, some devices showed multiple, and there was no real consistency to it. Strictly, he’s right; this isn’t the most usable situation.

The part he misses is that the indicator lights on his equipment doesn’t really play that big of a role in the big picture. Most of the time when I’m using my TV, I’m not all that concerned about whether or not the red LED on the front is lit. All I really care about with my TV is that there’s a picture on the screen, tuned to the correct channel.

He brings up the TV settings menus as well, mentioning that these don’t ever really make-or-break the sale when a person is shopping. I agree with him here too. It’s very rare that you need to venture into the settings menu (say, because the contrast needs adjustment). If it’s really that difficult, there’s probably a bright 9-year-old nephew that can do it.

The really important part of the usability of a TV is the ability to change the channel and to control the volume (in my experience). I’ve used TVs before that took several seconds to change the channel each time, and the experience was brutal. I channel surf quite a bit, and it’s really tough to do when it takes 2 minutes to get through all of the channels I don’t care about. Some remote controls have very slow repeat rates; when a loud (R.I.P Billy Mays) commercial comes on, I want to turn the volume down quickly. If I have to hold the Vol- button for 30 seconds to get the volume low enough… well, I’ve missed my opportunity.

I think the most important usability idea that we need to focus on is this: “Don’t get in the way of what I’m really trying to get done.” If there’s an activity that I need to do twice a year, it’s not a big deal if it’s a bit tricky. If I want to do it 40 times an hour, though, it had damned well better work.

A great example of getting this wrong was one of the first IPTV boxes that SaskTel rolled out (if I recall, they were Pace?). The on-screen guide was sloooooowwwwww. Really, really slow. It would show 4 channels, and going to the next screen took a few seconds to refresh and redraw. Navigating around the guide had enough latency that you’d notice it (maybe 300-500ms to move from box-to-box?) This left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouthes, and brought quite a bit of criticism.

They’ve since addressed this in two different ways: first, navigation is quite a bit quicker in the guide; second, they’ve added a picture-in-picture showing the channel that you were on when you launched the guide, giving you a good distraction to keep from noticing that it’s still not quite as snappy as it should be.

THIS is the kind of usability that matters; the in-our-face-everyday usability that you don’t notice. Really, I think that is the true mark of great usability: when you can use a product naturally, without even thinking about its usability.