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I remember that we had a fierce discussion in school around the term “User Friendly” where our lecturer with emphasis stated that “… there is no such thing as user friendly. The only valid term you can and will use is useful. An application can never buy you coffee”. I never paid any thoughts on it since then, but I came to think of it again this weekend.

The thing is, my (windows) phone broke down and went to repair. In the mean while I picked out an iPhone 4 (which will later be used by my seven year old daughter) and started to use it. As I started to learn the iPhone UI it really felt “friendly”. Nice looking, simple and everything worked from the start with very little configuration. So in a sense – it is friendly to me as a user.

But Wikipedia has an additional meaning of user friendly:

“The term user friendly is often used as a synonym for usable, though it may also refer to accessibility. Usability describes the quality of user experience across websites, software, products, and environments.”

Smashing Magazine uses the term in a slightly different form, calling on aesthetics:

Web design has significantly improved over the last years. It’s more user-friendly and more appealing today — and there is a good reason behind it: over the years we’ve found out that design with focus on usability and user experience is just more effective.

... and ...

In the past we didn’t cover web applications the way we should and now it’s time to take a closer look at some useful techniques and design solutions that make web-applications more user-friendly and more beautiful.

TL;DR

From the looks of it user friendly is a term used, sometimes a synonym for usable or the equivalence of accessible. Other sources uses user friendly as something related to aesthetic qualities. But from the university, I learnt that user friendly as a term is invalid. It all boils down to the question is ”User Friendly” a valid term in User Experience?

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The term "user friendly" was mis-used back in the old days. Hence the strong arguments by your lecturer. It was very important back then to move away from the misleading term "user friendly" to the more appropriate term "usability". Later on, "user experience" became the commonly used term that describes an even broader meaning of the user interaction. Since "UX" focuses more on the subjective experience of an interface, "user friendly" is probably a vary valid aspect of the overall user experience. But many uses the term with care since the initial use of the term was mis-leading... –  Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 4 '13 at 11:24
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Drop the "user". If the interface comes across as friendly, just call it that: friendly. –  Marjan Venema Feb 4 '13 at 18:08

3 Answers 3

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It is accurate that the term "user friendly" has a specific history that has since caused it to go out of general use among many practitioners. (A significant 'exception', if such a large contingent can't rightly be called an 'exception' is that one of the largest most well-respected UX conferences in China is called, you guessed it, "User Friendly"!). In the evolving history and value-laden terms of our profession, this one had limited connotations and scope, that were corrected as the vision and understanding of what goes into a truly stellar design expanded with inventive capabilities and methods for making people happy (or productive, or successful, or all of the above.) It was used as validation of "If a product is pleasant and people like it, then that's all it needs to be." Your professor was responding to the dismissive way that the term came to be used that failed to account for whether or not a product or design allowed the users to reach their goals, whatever those might be. Now it also fails to account for a number of known variables of great design that extend even past the 'gold standard' of goal-achievement.

Take note, though, that the term "user friendly" is making its way back into the vocabulary of designers and user experience practitioners and product managers and executives, even of the users, themselves. It now has a certain connotation that can not easily be captured any other way. It is a term that serves as a shortcut for a holistic concept of qualities and characteristics that cannot easily be captured in a few words of definitions.

To give a sense of what it means now, picture it this way, "A design that is the source of a simple experience after which a user visibly relaxes, with a moment of 'knowing,' or the faint glow of a smile, before moving on to the next thing."

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I've separated the original question into two questions.

Is 'user friendly' a valid term in UX?
Yes, but only when communicating with people outside the field. Inevitably, when I hear 'user friendly' it is from somebody that is not a UX professional but has a legitimate role in the design, evaluation, or use of the system.

Examples:

  • Review from an industry analyst: "Monolithic Technology would be in our leader's quadrant but their offering is not user friendly."
  • A claim in a competitor's marketing material: "Customers love our software because of its user friendliness."
  • A directive from somebody high up in Monolithic Technology's organization: "Our software needs to be more user friendly."
In all three examples, 'user friendly' could refer to any of the following:

  • feature set

  • integration with surrounding technologies

  • task model

  • interaction patterns
  • aesthetics
  • documentation
  • packaging

In each case, the person making the statement may not be able to identify the contributing factors to 'user friendliness'. However, they are aware that 'user friendly' is an important quality of the system. For their purposes, 'user friendly' is an appropriate term.

As a UX professional, our job is to figure out which aspect of 'user friendly' is relevant for the person using the term.

Is 'useful' a synonym for 'user friendly'?
No. A useful system may not be user friendly. Similarly, a user friendly system may not be useful. Most models of technology acceptance, e.g., Venkatesh's UTAUT, separate ease of use and usefulness. This figure is from an older version of the TAM. Usefulness and ease of use are distinct factors. Ease of use contributes to technology attitude toward using whereas usefulness contributes directly toward behavioral intention to use.

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I agree with your distinction. As Benny stated, the windows phone had all the usability the iPhone has, but it felt much less friendly. –  Dvir Adler Feb 5 '13 at 7:35

Interesting question! I think your lecturer doesn't have a valid argument with: "An application can never buy you coffee". Take Siri for example: I think nowadays (or sometime in the very near future) an application can buy you coffee. Alas, you still have to pay for it yourself, but the time has definitely come that apps can be friendly.

Also, if the willingness to buy someone something is a measurement of friendliness then where does it end and how would you measure this? Compare an app who buys you coffee with an app that buys you a new car, would the second one be friendlier?

To me personally, user friendliness (or UX in general) is about going the extra mile. A good app is (easily) usable (you can measure this using usability measurements). A great app delights you and goes the extra mile.

Take the Clear app for example. Is it usable? Yes, but so is Evernote. Does it delight you by being something extra? Yes, definitely. Whether you, as an individual, care about the fact that the interaction is special, is left to your own judgement. But I think this simple example illustrates the difference between usability and user friendliness. People were surprised by the fact that a ToDo list could behave like that.

Another good example of user friendliness is software-with-a-personality and tone-of-voice. MailChimp does this really well. Yes, their software is usable. But it's more than that: it's friendly! It supports you when times are rough (people unsubscribing: "Well, who needs them anyway?") and it cheers you on when things are going well (high open rates).

Finally, how you would measure such a thing as user friendliness I'm not so sure about. Sure you can do qualitative research, but I can imagine it could be quite hard to attribute results to concrete steps you took regarding the user friendliness.

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Re MailChimp: voiceandtone.com - "our tone adapts to our users’ feelings" –  jfrej Feb 4 '13 at 13:55

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