Useful Systems Must Also Be Usable Systems

While writing my previous post on the frequency of usability-related terms in publications, I started thinking about the connection between the usability and the usefulness of systems. Although most usable systems are useful—iterative usability testing tends to expose useless systems—useful systems aren’t always very usable, and the biggest example of this is the web.

Tim Berners-Lee’s connection of computers with the World Wide Web in the early 1990s was a sea change in the usefulness of computers. The simplicity of linking documents with HTML is a powerful information-organizing concept. However, the simplicity of HTML was a massive setback for the usability of computers. HTML lacked the richness of GUI toolkits for expressing user interfaces, which tossed away all the usability experience gained during application development in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Adding interactivity to a stateless protocol (HTTP) was—and still is—a hack. Even modern AJAX-powered websites struggle to match the cohesive user experience present in well-designed applications of twenty years ago. As the web develops from Web 2.0 to 3.0 and beyond, the same underlying problem remains: how can we match the convenience of visiting a website with the usability of installed software that harnesses rich, native GUI toolkits?

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