Usability as Recognition

I’d like to point out something that you may not have noticed yet. And though I’m quite sure many of you have seen it by now, its subtlety is worth mentioning here again. Go take another look at the FedEx logo — specifically, take another look at the white space surrounding the logo.

The FedEx logo pictured above is the collective logo.

There may have been years when you didn’t notice this arrow in its negative space. Now you can’t stop noticing how the figure and its ground produce an entirely new object. The brand may have even taken on new meaning. Josef Albers describes the arrow’s visual effect as 1+1=3 or more, or the creation of an incidental new element from two intentionally placed elements. (1) What has happened here is that you’re stopped recognizing the logo, and started to perceive it as having another quality.

First Impressions

Our relationship with usability of sites has gone through a similar cycle. If you think about your first experience with a website, you may not remember it as being specifically unintuitive or a bad experience. In fact, chances are, you thought it was pretty enjoyable. You may have even continued to think this for a good long while, primarily based on access to hyperlinks.

The typography and white space create a third element seen here.

Then the late nineties came. You started to read articles about “Emerging Website Standards” and “Rules for Intuitive User Experiences” and you started recognizing patterns; started to develop expectations. And this is OK, although this shift may have prevented you from perceiving or evaluating a site’s elements objectively.

Gradually, your experience online became less about, well, the experience, and you started noticing its components. Tabbed navigation bars; customer service sections; standard and express shipping options — these things became the norm. You could spot patterns; you recognized familiar elements. You moved from an experiential method of browsing to an intellectual one, finding that sites filled a need that may have otherwise been unfulfilled. (2)

Unsuspecting Expectations

Now go back to the FexEx logo. At some point in the past, you achieved a new level of recognition, let’s call it resonance, with this logo. Its meaning changed, and it became less familiar because you saw this third level. And although it probably wouldn’t be useful for most of us to analyze the figure-ground relationship of its typeface and whitespace, this level beyond recognition provides new meaning for us. This is exactly where I think we need to go with site usability.

When we moved from an experiential to an intellectual way of interpreting sites, we changed the way we browsed, designed, and talked about sites online. We expect a certain set of heuristics online, and these expectations may have only come when we began to recognize these sites as having a pattern. We may have stopped analyzing at a certain level, and begun to recognize site types: e-commerce, content, portal, corporate, etc. Vigilant usability professionals may think about how certain site elements resonate with their intended audiences, but a larger group of us are guilty of pointing to usability standards, or the lack of them, when evaluating sites.

Ironically, what you expect and how you recognize something has only to do with how you interact with a site. John Dewey described this level of recognition as “perception before it has a chance to develop freely.” Our ability to analyze usability of sites is hindered by the very fact that we’re so familiar with them! We can’t see past our own expectations at times, causing us to fall back on standards that may not be appropriate for our audiences.

Patterns create meaning, and more importantly, recognition supports this meaning. (3) Perception and resonance, however, can give us unique insight. Study after study show that people have a little patience for cumbersome designs or slow pages. We know that people do not want to relearn how to use each site. Certain obstacles can hinder usability to the point of making us uncomfortable and never return. There is indeed a need for standards.

The Enemy, Recognition

I’m proposing that we need to stop recognizing sites. Because there are no reliable standards, there cannot be one methodology for evaluating a usable site. You’ll come across a number of “recognized” standards, but perception is subjective. Emphasis on perception of usability will allow us to see that negative space, to predict that “3” that our users may conclude when using a site, to intuit subjective opinions by being perceptive. We just need to be aware.

Footnotes & References

(1) Josef Albers, “One Plus One Equals Three or More: Factual Facts and Actual Facts,” Search Versus Re-Search

(2) For five years, my mother had been puzzled by why friends and family flocked to the internet for information. After years of web experience, she was upgraded from a dialup speed of 28.8 to 56.6. She called recently to inform me that it only takes 3 seconds for Yahoo! to load. She’d been waiting anywhere from twelve seconds to one minute at times. Singlehandedly, this upgrade has transformed her outlook on using online information.

(3) You may need proof. Here’s a makeshift test you can do at work or home. Try holding two gatherings. Before the first, arrange chairs in the room in some configuration and observe where people sit as they file into the room. Next hold a meeting in a room with fewer chairs than people. Again, observe. People don’t recognize this configuration, so they perceive what they should to do based on a system set out before them. Without a recognizable system, people will likely make do. Past experiences will shape their actions, no doubt, but the pattern of interaction will undoubtedly be different from meeting to meeting.

* FedEx service marks used by permission.