CX Insights

Usability Has Become A Commodity

5 min read
  • Heretical or not, it is time to have more pleasure and enjoyment in life. Although the cognitive analyses of usability and function are important, so too is the affective analysis. Let the future of everyday things be ones that do their job, that are easy to use, and that provide enjoyment and pleasure.

— Don Norman

I couldn’t say it any better than Don Norman. There is no questions that the usability of a user interface (UI) will continue to be essential for the success of a product. Only due to technological progress and common usability standards, people will be more likely to notice its absence rather than its presence. Usability has become a commodity and is no longer a distinctive feature. Something less tangible has taken its place: The user experience.

Evolution and design

Design used to have a low standard of usability. There are a lot of reasons for this, but probably the most important one is the state of technology. The technology of the web (and you can say that of any electronic product) went through a lot of changes. Designing and programming got easier over time, and brought forward more advanced opportunities.

In 1990, the WorldWideWeb (W3) was launched. This system of interlinked hypertext documents looked very basic and focussed on functionality only.

Screenshot of the first page on the WorldWideWeb.

The W3 was built with the aim of ‘giving universal access to a large universe of documents. It consisted of nothing but text and links. Mosaic was introduced in 1993 as the first graphical browser, superseded by Netscape Navigator. Slowly, the web became more graphical and interactive.

Old car looks similar to a horse carriage

Just like the first automobiles looked a lot like horse carriages, websites looked like print pages for many years. Designers tried to bring the skills they learned from desktop publishing to this new medium. In hindsight, we call this Web 1.0. It focuses on presenting, not creating. Current web standards, known as Web 2.0, offer a whole new approach. The World Wide Web has turned into an interactive medium that bears great potential and endless opportunities.

Aarron’s Hierarchy of User Needs

In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of human motivation known as the Hierarchy of needs. He used five levels of human motivation that depend on each other. To be more precise, he suggested that we can never reach the top level of self-actualization, if we have not first satisfied all other needs.

In his book Designing for Emotion Aarron Walter translates this model of human needs to the needs of web users. Just like the original pyramid, it is essential to first satisfy the basic needs before we can strive after the top. According to Walter “we could certainly live contented lives meeting only the bottom three strata of the needs pyramid—physiological comfort, safety, and belonging. But it’s in that top layer that we can live a truly fulfilled life.”

Now if we tip over this pyramid of user needs, we can match the different levels to different point in time, which nicely bridges the gap to the previous chapter of this article. Time has made technical advances possible, which slowly turned usability into a commodity and made the user experience the distinctive feature.

User needs have evolved over time.

Tips for more emotions

Now what does all this mean for our website? Let’s take a look at four things you can do to add emotional value to your website, while leaving the usability out in the cold. Goal is it to get to the top of the pyramid and make your website pleasurable.


Personality is a great carrier for emotions. Add some personality to your site and let your users experience a more personal interaction. The idea that a website itself it not only a cumulation of code interpreted by a machine, but something we can actually relate to is very appealing. You can for example add personality through characters or a very creative and out of the ordinary web design. The website carbonmade becomes real through its playful design and personal copy.

Discovered by paul

Make it personal

Next to giving your website personality, it is also important to make it personal. At first these two might sound like the same thing, but they are not. making it personal means that you actually show your users that your website is just a medium that you use to communicate with them. Present yourself the way you really are and let your users feel that you are real and tangible. For example, Balsamiq have a very personal website and put major importance to a personal relationship with their users.

Discovered by paul

Photography & illustrations

Images can carry emotions like nothing else. Use images to attract attention, engage your users, and trigger actions. You can either use handmade sketches, illustrations, or high resolution photographs. Visuals of any kind work great to awake associations and with that certain emotions. The search engine bing could keep its design much simpler by not adding a huge image in the background. Yet they have chosen to do so to engage their users and make the site look less steril.

Discovered by usabilla

Tone of voice

Just like in real life, the way we say something and the words we use have a big impact on the message we send. On the Web, our senses might be limited, but that does not mean the ones we still have become less important. Your choice of words, font type, font size, and if nothing else, your punctuation can carry emotions. Apple knows well how to use written words to draw people in and awake desires.

Discovered by usabilla

Sabina Idler
Sabina was technical writer & UXer @Usabilla for 5 years before she started her own UX research and consultancy firm; UXkids. With UXkids, Sabina leverages her academic research expertise, know how in child development, and strategic vision to help companies build successful digital products for children. You can connect with Sabina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.