The New York Times has an entry-level article on the profession of usability, making it seem like an emerging field demanded by a greater level of human-computer interaction (I think someone over at the Times is jealous of my series concept, Job Descriptions From The Future).
In reality, the discipline of usability has been around ever since there have been things to use. Henry Dreyfus, who I am absolutely certain never designed a web site, defined a whole century of communication with his eminently usable Model 500 Telephone. One of the seminal volumes on usability, Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (originally published in 1988), contains an appendix where he expresses doubt that humans would ever be able to design something as complex as a hypertext information retrieval system (for those of you with less nerd quotient than me: you're looking at one right now).
Lateness to the party aside, the Times does manage to skim the high level points of a usability professional's lot in life, and they even touch upon a point that I feel is often lost in the shuffle of user experience design- the presumption of knowledge on the part of the user. The author writes:
"The creator of a Web site may assume too much knowledge on the part of users, leading to confusion."
This happens more often than not. Designers leave off labels, navigational pointers, summaries, and explanatory text that would help users orient themselves within an application or site. They forget that not everyone using their site has spent the last three months poring over comps and wireframes like they have, and they often skip the crucial step of naive user testing, even though it could be as simple as walking down the hall and borrowing someone from another department to poke around your beta site for 15 minutes.
To combat this, I have declared that one of our team's required ingredients in any design is to be 'Obviousness.' The designers should look at a page or application state as a singular slice in time and ask some simple questions:
1. Assuming I've completely forgotten the context of my visit to this site, is it obvious what I'm supposed to do here?
2. If the inherent design of the page doesn't help direct me, is there obvious labeling that can help reorient me?
3. If I panic or don't have time to read the labels, is it obvious how I can 'punch out' and reset the experience to a familiar state without screwing something up?
'Obviousness' is one of several experience values I am requiring all our work to express. Over the coming weeks, I plan to do a series of blog posts on the top experience values that contribute to the success of a user experience design (unless the Times beats me to it, of course).