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I'm of the opinion that the absence of complaints is not a strong indicator of good usability. I'd like to learn more about this idea, whether it's true or not, and how to argue the point if true.

My argument is that we, as humans, put up with tons of annoyances on a daily basis and we simply don't have the energy to take action on every one. Not only that, but we may not even recognize the problem (whatever that may be in life.)

Does this kind of behavior have a name? Knowing the name would be a good starting point for further reading.

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What you're describing are often called latent pains or latent inefficiencies. Observational studies can help reveal them, along with usability testing. –  Alex Feinman Jun 24 '13 at 17:12
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People usually rather run away than complain. Or they will complain to colleagues, but not to someone who can do something about it. It's human nature. –  Marjan Venema Jun 24 '13 at 18:14
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7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In Chapter 2 of The Design of Everyday Things D. Norman writes:

I have studied people making errors... Invariably people feel guilty and either try to hide the error or blame themselves for "stupidity" or "clumsiness". I often have difficulty getting permission to watch: nobody likes to be obseved performing badly.

Although I have not given you the name, the book is recommended reading.

So no users' feedback doesn't mean all is okay, moreover it's highly subjective. You also should use objective usability metrics. More common are time of task execution and number of errors. Both are quantitative, so some stats could be calculated.

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Perhaps a collection of anecdotal stories is best. For instance, Firefox wasn't broken yet it only took Chrome a few years to overtake it in usage share. Blackberries weren't broken when the iPhone came out. MySpace wasn't broken when Facebook came out. Hotmail wasn't broken when gmail came out.

To sum it up in one pithy saying, "Only the paranoid survive," Andy Grove.

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It might be worth referring to Learned Helpnessness

When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Basically people go: "what's the point of complaining ? - they'll never do anything about it..." So they learn not to try complaining.

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Usability and User testing.

The entire purpose of conducting these studies and tests is to find out what problems the user is facing - whether they report the problem and they don't. eg: A click analysis can tell you a lot about the pain points of a not so good navigation. There are things which the user does not know if they should be called bugs or his 'unfamiliarity' with the system. If you designed a poor touch interface and gave it to someone who has never used any such device prior, he/she will be quite intimidated BUT, will not complaint against the usability of the device, rather, their inexperience with the device.

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One thing I've learned from small time in gamedev is that within first iteration you should get some tester and give him game, and just watch him play. There you can see what are his struggles with game/UI, well... whole product.

So I think you should have that kind of thing going on everytime because we have difficulty understanding what is happening while it is happening. So we are trying to solve a problem at hand and concentrate on solving it (finding where are links or buttons) rather than on 'how could this be better'. The simpler problem (in contrast with higher goal) with more difficulty the more frustration it generates and after certain level we say 'well this sucks'.

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Personally, I complain about usability issues. But, judging from conversations I have both with the cause of the complaint, and others in general, this is pretty exceptional. Most people don't conceptualise "usability" as something which could be good or bad, unless it's terrible. And it doesn't really cross their minds to report, until it becomes part of a bigger problem ("Your stupid site billed my credit card twice").

So I guess I'm saying that usability is not salient for most people.

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Start by framing your argument in terms of innovation vs. lack of vision. Some possibly apocryphal quotes which make the point: Ford's customers' asking for a "faster horse", Bill Gates' 640KB being "enough for anyone" and Thomas J. Watson's "a world market for maybe five computers".

I'd then present quantitative information about the number of irritations (daily, weekly or yearly) experienced by people, multiply it by the number of people affected and the amount of time wasted at each occurrence and then put a monetary figure on that. You could repeat this for different software.

It may not sound scientific, but it will help you talk about the cost of poor usability in terms the business will understand.

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