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Apple: The Case Study for Usability

Out Of Date Warning

Languages change. Perspectives are different. Ideas move on. This article was published on August 19, 2008 which is more than two years ago. It may be out of date. You should verify that technical information in this article is still current before relying upon it for your own purposes.

It would be hard to talk about usability without the ubiquitous iPod coming to mind. Apple likes the slogan “it just works,” and they spend a lot of time, energy and money painting anything by Microsoft as for business, too technical, and difficult to work with.

I’m certainly no Apple fanboy, and though I use a Mac and prefer it to Windows, I am keenly aware of its numerous flaws (try compiling PHP or ask Tony Bibbs). But I do concede that Apple is winning the usability war. So, what can we learn from Apple when it comes to usability?

There are three key components that make Apple products easy to use:

  1. Limiting options. How many buttons are on the iPhone? The iPod? Excluding the letters on the keyboard, how many options are on the Apple computer (1 mouse button and a power button). The iPod has the most, at six, if you count the play/pause, menu, select, forward, backwards and volume control as individual buttons (seven if you include Hold). The iPhone has one physical button – one.
  2. Not Limiting Power Many designers think that in order to make things simple to use, they must limit the power of the application. Not true. I had a boss once who insisted that usability meant limiting options, and limiting options meant limiting features. But the iPhone proves that there can be endless features while limiting options.
  3. Prominent Placement David Pogue tells the story of a Palm engineer who fought his collegues over whether to include a prominent delete button on the initial Palm Pilot contacts page. The designer argued that you should have a prominent add feature – you add people all the time. But you delete people rarely – if ever – and so that feature should be hidden to save screen space and prevent clutter. Careful design means considering the uses for your application and the likelihood that your users will want a particular feature. It means taking some time, sitting someone down, and letting them play with your application. You might even use a tool to track their movements on the screen and see how intuitive the application is. Good design means spending time thinking about what you’re doing, instead of just doing it.

Apple’s success comes not from having slick marketing, though that does help. It comes from the fact that people who use their applications tell others about them. This comes because the application is easy to use.

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