At Scholastica, we spend a lot of time thinking about usability. For us this means trying to make our application easy to use (e.g. size and placement of buttons, logical workflows, etc). But of course, usability is not limited to the web. It applies to everything around us, even non-technical things like a pair of shoes that just won’t stay tied. That’s a usability problem.

One thing you realize very quickly when thinking about usability is that big problems normally result from the accumulation of many smaller mistakes. On the web, for example, you don’t normally encounter a poorly designed site and think: “Damn, if they fixed this one problem, everything would be perfect.” More often, a site is difficult to use because the designers have made a bunch of smaller mistakes (e.g. cryptic validation errors, bad typography, unclear page titles, etc). The important point here is that achieving simplicity means being obsessive about even the smallest details because they add up to make all the difference.

To better illustrate my point, let’s have a look at my boarding pass from last weekend:

About what you’d expect. And now let’s have another look and think about usability. First, most of this information is totally pointless:

I’m assuming this information might be useful to someone at some point. So let’s move it all to the back of the pass:

Now we’re already doing much better. Next, let’s think about information hierarchy (i.e organizing information so that it’s easy to find what’s most important). We can improve the hierarchy both by emphasizing important information (e.g. bigger font) and deemphasizing lesser details (e.g. lower contrast).

So what’s most important here? I’m sure it differs somewhat from person to person, but a reasonable ranking might look like:

  1. Departure gate (far and away the most important thing)
  2. Boarding time
  3. Seat number
  4. Seating group
  5. Departure date, departs from, arrives at (in any order since I almost definitely know this stuff without the help of a boarding pass)

Now let’s have another look at our pared down ticket:

Good work guys. It’s pretty much exactly the opposite of what I’d expect. So let’s shift some things around paying closer attention to information hierarchy:

That’s much better. The design reinforces the hierarchy of information. As a result, it’s much easier to quickly scan your pass and find the information you need.

Of course, it’s just a boarding pass. But remember, usability is all about details and when taken together these details matter – a lot. For example, I’m sure some hurried traveler has looked at this pass and mistakenly walked to gate 32E (seat number) rather than D11 (departure gate). Those numbers are pretty similar, and 32E is much more prominent at a glance.

You don’t have to be a professional designer to think about usability. All you need is common sense and a preference for simplicity. Let’s do everyone a favor and try to make the world a little less complicated.