Is Usability really opposed to productive confusability?  11/1/04

There is a fine line to walk between the seemingly opposed philosophies of usability and narrative-oriented freedom. Usability urges simplicity and clarity of design and structure; explorers of the web's new narrative possibilities point to the power and effect of intentional misdirection, ambiguity, and freedom. I think that the line is there, but is far wider and fuzzier than either camp tends to describe.

Different audiences

Both are presenting absolutes in hopes that their readers will understand the extreme statements and at least work toward them. I also think that the two camps are also simply arguing against what they fear the other side is saying:

  • The usability folks are largely speaking to people designing commercial websites for inexperienced users. They are seeking to bring new readers into the medium by making the web less frightening and confusing. For their designer audience, user confusion means lost sales.
  • The narrative folks are speaking to writers creating new fiction and narratives. Their readers' audience is more likely to be seeking unknown territory, and has more patience for diversion, exploration, and novelty. They may even be seeking to be lost or frightened.

Patron saints of different tasks

The two camps do speak to each other occaisionally, but by and large, they are patron saints of different tasks. And despite their different roles, the two are also integral to each other: narrative is in everything we do, whether we intend it or no; and if a site is utterly random or confusing, no matter how beautiful it is, you cannot get to anything of interest without learning a new language.

Another way to look at this line is as the border between:

  • making it so easy for readers to find what they're looking for on your site that they see *nothng* but what they are looking for, and
  • helping your readers to see things that they didn't know they were looking for, but might want, including surprising story elements.

I've got more to say about this, I think.