Flexibility/Usability Tradeoff

As the flexibility of a system increases, its usability decreases. It sounds simple, but yet is so difficult to understand. Flexibility has costs. I would argue this holds true in general, but for now let’s focus on the web.

Making it ‘Foolproof’

Murphy’s Law claims, in part, that “nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.” In basic terms, you cannot plan for everything. Rather, you should design and code for the critical mass of users needed to make your website successful. When you go overboard on flexibility, you decrease efficiency, added complexity, increase time, and spend more money for development. You may deliver a user experience that is worse than what you started with.

Take an online project intake form or summer internship application as an example. Rather than trying to account for every possible scenario of what you may wish to know, ask for the base information that you need. You can always learn more about the person through follow-up interactions. As you learn that certain questions or pieces of information are key difference makers, update your form/application. The nice thing about the web is that you can make updates.

Instead of making an “end all, be all” web form, webpage, or set of instructions, go back to the basics and make a general outline. Add in some of the flexibility factors that cater to the majority of your users. Test and be open to feedback. Make adjustments as necessary. Accommodate the few users who need those extra features—but have a flexible mindset in considering how to do so. If a particular issue comes up only once per six months, is it really an issue that needs fixing? Or, is a phone call or follow-up email perfectly satisfactory? A good manager considers this through the lens of the specific context and situation.

Intentional Restrain

Digital Services must show intentional restraint in how flexible we make our websites. We use a Content Management System to manage the majority of our sites. Because our university uses a decentralized web management approach, we have hundreds of CMS users—many who are not web professionals. With every new feature or template that we add to our CMS, we add another layer of complexity. Another click. Another step. More opportunity for confusion.

Because of the flexibility/usability tradeoff scenario, we are very careful with what we do and do not add to the CMS and to our websites. Our clients benefit from this approach every day, even if they are sometimes frustrated by what we are able to offer. Our approach is intentional, though. Perhaps just not for the reasons that our clients realize.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager