Usability in the Physical World vs. on the Web


Some years ago, I was at our UX conference
in Sydney, Australia. At the time, the Starbucks coffee chain had
just opened up in Australia. And they were distributing in their coffee
shops this brochure, “Finding Your Favorite Cup: A Guide to Ordering your Starbucks Coffee.” This is a cup of coffee that’s so complicated,
it requires 8 fan-folds worth of instructions, really, a manual, for how to get your coffee. That’s a clear indication of bad usability. One of the reasons is that they made up their
own language. Here’s step 2 [in ordering]: the size. So, to get a small cappuccino, you order a
“tall.” To get a midsize cappuccino, you order a “grande,”
and to get a large cappuccino, you order a “venti.” Now, in which language does grande mean medium? Not in Italian, that’s for sure. Making up your own language — that’s a blatant
violation of one of our most basic usability guidelines: to speak the user’s language,
not make up your own words and their own meanings. Which makes things much more complicated. Now you might say, “Starbucks is actually
proven to be a very successful company, so what’s the use of all these usability guidelines?” Well, they are still very useful when designing
for the virtual world. Starbucks is in the physical world, but for
the virtual world, the online world, the interactive world, like if you’re designing a website,
usability requirements are much stricter. In the physical world, if you are in a coffee
shop, and it takes one minute more than it should take to order a cup of coffee, you
are still going to stay there because it’s much more time consuming and complicated to
walk out of that coffee shop, walk down the street, or maybe even drive across town, into
another coffee shop, and place your order there. In contrast, on a website, users probably
arrive at your website through a search engine. That means they have 9 other competing sites
just one click away. So it’s very easy for them to go someplace
else. A one minute delay of hassle? Man, they’re out of there long before that. Another difference is that in the physical
world, you have an actual human to help you. So if you walk up to the counter and you say,
“I’d like to get a midsize cappuccino.” Well, maybe that kind of snooty person is gonna say,
“Well, around here, we call that a grande, actually.” But they’re still going to give you a midsize
cappuccino. So, there’s much more flexibility, much more
ability for the customer to deviate from the expected or prescribed script of behavior. In contrast, on computers, yeah, they’re getting
a bit of artificial intelligence these days, but it’s not nearly the same as real intelligence
and an actual human being there in terms of flexibility. Computers are very restricted, very literal
in what you can do there. Again, that means that people have to adapt
to the computer, which is what we don’t want. Computers need to have much higher usability
for it to be a pleasant, good user experience. So, keep that distinction in mind between
the physical world — where people will suffer a little bit more and still be there — versus
the virtual world — a website, any kind of application or interactive thing that you’re
designing, where usability requirements are much stricter.

3 thoughts on “Usability in the Physical World vs. on the Web

  1. The core point of usability is good but I'm not sure the Starbucks beverage size is a good example of it. I don't think Starbucks chose those names for usability reasons but for branding ones. Patrick Hanlon in Primal Branding talks about having a unique Language that insiders use to distinguish themselves from unbelievers. The Tall, Grande and Venti sizes are a great example of that. And as pointed out in this video, the Starbucks' partner taking the order can easily translate for people not familiar with the vocabulary. I suppose one could say in this particular case, Starbucks was optimizing for building a brand and committed customers over usability for the uninitiated.

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