Usability is Design

Traditionally, product design has been all about designing the device: making it function better, make it appeal to the intended user and saving costs to the manufacturer and the customer. The design of a message was however left to the communication designer: to convey a message effectively so that the audience gets it.

The lines of demarcation are blurring and suddenly everything seems to boil down to usability: the spanking new science that is driving design in all its myriad forms.

The lines are blurring also because the user is now also an audience. The device is fast becoming a medium of communication. Take iPod, for example. It is a simple enough piece of product design that suddenly became an icon of our times. It is not just an exciting mp3 music player. It also works seamlessly with iTunes, a website that sells music. It takes into account how the user uses the product and builds a delight into the product usability. It redefines the concept of how a personal music player is bought and used and seamlessly builds Usablity into all its components : the product, the interface and the website.

ISO has an interesting definition for Usability:”The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” Isn’t that what Design is supposed to be? To make anything effective, efficient and delightful is the prime concern of every designer. It has always been empirical and emotional. It is now a measurable science thanks to the advancement in the Usability sciences.

A Samsung phone can look suspiciously similar to an iPhone in the form-factor but the interface design in both the products are so different that it gives each product the identity that defines them. So while the essential plastic moulding, glass casing, aluminium unibody can be the domain of the traditional product designer, what is increasingly defining the product’s character is the intuitive interface, the associated website, the ease of navigation and the downloadable apps. In that sense, product design itself is becoming more complex to include the interface and usability.

Designers will soon be united with this single concept of ‘usability’.

While traditional domain areas will continue to exist, new designers will evolve who will be driven by this common concern for usability. And they will focus on the whole experience. This new evolved breed, will be at ease with the traditional manufacturing processes as well as digital technology. This new breed of designers will apply design thinking to work analytically as well as intuitively. This will bring about the birth of the networked designer who does not just work in his own little ‘silo’ but with all domains that contributes to making the experience better. And usability will be the glue that holds them together.



  1. Dear Mr. Balasubramaniam
    While I’m always happy to read thoughtful articles on design, there is a certain aspect of your basic premise that I don’t agree with. I find you mixed several unconnected domains of usability, design for emotion, product service system (PSS).
    Usability has always been traditionally the focus of product design, right since the 80′s when D.Norman founded the concept of affordance, this has been a contribution of HCI to product design and is certainly not a ‘spanking new science’. Usability is based on the concept of ‘machine centred design’, the domain of the 80′s.
    Apple which u sight has in fact has long since moved towards user experience and ‘human centred design’ and to a systemic level approach (PSS). Design answers these questions through design for emotion, product semantics, product communication domains.
    For 25 years European design has been focusing on human centred design, scenario based design, story telling. Products have a communicative value, they are shape coded and definitely ‘read’ by users and also attaching ‘identities’ to their users. Design is no longer just intuitive but an investigative science much like medicine. But this has nothing to with usability, which your own reference points out is preoccupied with efficiency of use and satisfaction (again Norman’s concepts).
    You correctly point out that design and interaction are merging. This is a challenge for the product design community globally.


    1. I belong to a generation that learnt design, ‘the non-digital’ way. So, there were no sub-domains to nit-pick from. However, I agree that you may have a point. Thanks for your thoughts.


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