World Usability Day – Bring It On

Nov 8th brings upon us World Usability Day, now eight years in the running. This year’s major theme is the Usability of Financial Systems, with the event growing larger every year from record participation in international conferences and increasing media coverage.

First of all, let’s all take a moment to say “Go, world!” for anointing a full day to usability. This gives us design nerds yet another excuse to wax poetic about our favorite buzzy terms and hipster-geek out together in giant conference rooms at swanky hotels over our Macs and steaming cups of coffee (locally-sourced beans, of course).

Cheekiness apart, we can agree that this is important. Never before has such attention been paid, by design folks and “normals” alike, to the collision of form, function, visual design and sensory experience in one gigantic meta-ideal we call the “usable”. Apple’s stock price knows no bounds, Steve Jobs is a demi-god, and people somehow keep shopping at IKEA despite swearing they’ll never go back.

The fact is it’s not just about aesthetics anymore (it never was). It’s about “How fast does it load?” and “How smooth are its curves?” It’s about “How heavy is it on my shoulder?” and “Can I find the menu quickly enough?”. It’s about “Can I carry it on the subway?” and “Does this make me feel stupid?”. And even, “Is this inexpensive-yet-stylish enough to be worth my time crouched on the floor hammering together random pieces of wood with the lofty goal of furnishing my apartment?” (clearly, IKEA and I have unresolved issues).

It’s also about creating habits, making users want more, building in “social hooks”, and making it “go viral”. It’s about developing reward systems, demanding user commitment, toying with psychology, and considering disabilities. It’s about touch and smell, hardware and software, bits and bytes, wood and steel, and the air in between.

Usability, in other words, is like a giant dinosaur’s mouth that seems it will swallow you whole–except, when you stop to realize, that at the end of the day it’s all about bringing a smile to the user’s face and having them come back for more.

Simple, when you look at it that way, but certainly not easy. And this brings us to this year’s theme – The Usability of Financial Systems.

I would say it was somewhere around mid-2007 that people stood up and started to take notice about the importance of usability in finance. That’s when exploded on the scene, with a drop-dead gorgeous interface showcasing slick, colorful dashboards, and “No way, really?” functionality bringing together personal credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, student loans, mortgages, and more, into one so-easy-your-grandma-would-get-it, eat-it-like-it’s-cake online software package.

In my view, that’s really when things changed, and they’ve never been the same. Mint has spawned an entire industry of personal finance me-too software products including CakeHealth for managing health insurance and as a close competitor. Let’s not forget Mint’s influence on the payments space as well, what with Square, Dwolla, and WePay boasting beauty, simplicity, and powerful functionality all rolled into one.

But things have come a long way since 2007, and usability isn’t a luxury any more–it’s just expected. Finally, it seems, Big Finance is catching on too. Intridea has been proud to develop interfaces for giants like Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Agilysys’ point-of-sale systems. We’re just glad some folks are stepping up to the plate, and that we get to be part of the revolution.

On a separate note, the reason I love this year’s theme so much is because it invites discussion on usability in an area where people least expect it, an area that’s still wide open for disruption. Let’s face it–people expect a designer scarf to be gorgeous, rich in color, featuring complex textures, and soft to the touch. But a bank’s interface? Not so much. Until it is. And you see it. And it all comes together. And everything changes.

This year, it’s incumbent upon everyone–not just the design industry–but Big Finance too, to take the usability of financial products seriously and do something about it. It’s only fair–you shouldn’t be allowed to experience the joy of a BMW test drive, the ripping open of a new iPad package, or the other-worldliness of Disneyland, if what you put out in the world yourself is utter and complete crap. Quid pro quo, I say, quid pro quo. Karma. Do unto others. What goes around comes around. All that jazz.

So there, I said it. Bring it on, World Usability Day. Bring it on, Big Finance. Show me what you’ve got.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my steaming cup of organic Guatemalan coffee.