Usability Tradeoff

Usability Tradeoff

The flexibility-usability tradeoff states that as the flexibility of a system increases, its usability decreases. This conflict exists because making an application or product super flexible means designing for a lot more design requirements, which means more compromise and more complexity. You may have heard the phrase, “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” That is the flexibility-usability tradeoff. Do a lot, but don’t do anything very well. It’s pretty common when you’re designing an app that you find your team adding on more and more requirements, with the goal of making the app super flexible and usable for the power user and the novice. This can be a mistake, because your success is dependent on your target audience’ ability to anticipate the future and predict future uses of your product.

When you’re designing for an audience that has a clear understanding of its needs, aim for specialized designs that target those needs as efficiently as possible. Focus and a few things really well. A simple, seemingly straightforward interface (the Windows 8 phone interface, for example) or a platform that is simple to use (think Twitter) can provide your target audience with a simple way for them to then be creative and use it for unintended behaviors. The makers of Twitter for example, built the app to support instant communication at conferences; the creators probably never anticipated that that platform would become critical to news organizations around the world or as a platform for communicating social activism.


Flexible Swiss Army Knife isn’t easy to use vs. Usable table knife that is specialized.

Flexible TV remote that is hard to use vs. Usable TV app that is specialized.

Voice of the Expert:

To learn more about interaction design, one of the reigning masters is Alan Cooper, veteran product and interaction designer, prolific writer, speaker, and teacher.

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