Usability and Stagnation: Are you learning anything new?

In their usual frank yet informative manner, the Nielsen Norman Group posted an article that discusses the stagnation of user expertise. In fact, the article writes: “Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it; they don’t explore the user interface and don’t know about most features.” While the latter may be true, the former seems like a rather severe judgment. Yet, the article brings up several good points and draws upon interesting examples.
In both and old and new examples, Nielsen finds that even with a design of good usability, after people learn a core set of features, decades can pass with a user only learning a couple of new features. People, ultimately, seem to reach a certain, perhaps even then unclear understanding of the interface, and then don’t get much better. In one study of Microsoft Office, the UX team asked customers to suggest new features, but their requests were actually often things that had been a part of Office for years. More recent examples include usability studies with Apps for touchscreens. People were largely unaware of the basic features of the apps. For example, when using the Bank of America app, one user did not know a check deposit feature existed. And further, someone using MyFitnessPal did not realize she could track her weight or access information from a previous day. The article lists several other apps in which users were not using the apps to their fullest (or even sometimes basic) potential.

But why? Why are people not using these systems to the fullest when they must know that they are supposed to be useful and increase productivity? Nielsen’s answer: users are narrowly focused on the present. And furthermore, people don’t read manuals. They are set on one particular task and do not take the time to investigate the entire interface for possible features and functions. And it makes sense, often times we don’t look for something new until we realize we need it.

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So what can be done to encourage user learning? Nielsen argues fewer features, yet visible features and signifiers, just-in-times learning, forgiveness, low-commitment previews, and plain usability.  By providing fewer yet more visible features, people will be able to explore each one and likewise by providing error messages or quick previews demonstrating how something should be done could help increase the likelihood that someone will try it out.

And as I read through this article, I couldn’t help but think about how this applies to so many different aspects of learning and especially my current studies as Library Science student. With the continuing technological changes, improvements and innovations, how do people move forward and continue to actively engage and learn without stagnating. This article seemingly answers or at least suggests possible solutions that are adaptable beyond user experience. Helping users feel at ease to explore and provide them with the knowledge or information that makes the work feel easier and what they need in that moment is certainly one of a librarian’s goals. However, it easier said than done, right?

Nonetheless, this article proved an interesting and thought-provoking read as I consider my own personal and academic use of technology. Am I using any my resources/apps/databases to their fullest potential? That’s a really good question.