So Easy a Child Could Do It: Can We Make an Interface Too Usable?

When most of us think about usability, we probably think about websites, web applications, computer software, and more recently, tablets and mobile devices. Video game consoles usually do not come to mind, but they should.

Current generation video game consoles do a lot more than just enable people to play games. As an average user, these are the things I do on my PlayStation 3:

  • Play games
  • Purchase games and game add-ons (e-commerce)
  • Watch TV and movies
  • Surf the Internet
  • Play CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays
  • View photos
  • Stream media through my home network.

Consequently, video game consoles have a lot of features and a lot of functions that need to be
presented in a very simple way. These user interfaces are particularly unique, because they are designed to be navigated using the controller that comes with the system. The controller is, in most cases, limited to four primary buttons (e.g., circle, square, triangle, and X) and up, down, left, right motion. In fact, the PlayStation 3 user interface is so simple navigate, that even a child can do it.

Recently, I left my 16-month old daughter alone in front of my TV (and PlayStation 3) for about five minutes. Three minutes after I left the room, I received an email from the ‘PlayStation(R) Network’ thanking me for purchasing: ‘Mortal Kombat Online Pass (Add-On Content) $9.99’. Slightly confused, I went back to the room where I left my daughter. I found her sitting on the couch with a PlayStation controller in her hands and a big smile on her face.

It was hard to believe, but within the span of about three minutes, she had managed to turn on my PlayStation, select an item from the What’s New screen, purchase the item from the PlayStation store, download the item, and install the item.

To give PlayStation credit where credit is due, I have never had a problem accomplishing any task on this device, without documentation. The PlayStation user interface is learnable, efficient, simple, easy to remember, and pleasant to use — but, can a user interface actually be too usable? To figure this out, I decided to retrace my daughter’s steps. With no previous understanding or experience with this device or user interface, and not being able to read, this this is what she accidentally managed to accomplish.

  1. On the PlayStation controller, push the PS3 button. The PS3 turns on and defaults to the What’s
    New screen.
  2. Press X to select the first item on the What’s New screen.
  3. Press X to access the PlayStation store.
  4. Press X to purchase the item. The Purchase Confirmation screen displays.
  5. Move the analog stick to the right and select Confirm Purchase.
  6. Press X. The Purchase Completion screen displays.
  7. Press X to download the item.
  8. Press X to install the item.

The procedure was accomplished by simply turning on the system and repeatedly pressing the X button to move through the steps. Step 5 offered a ‘safety switch’ by requiring the user to navigate to the right then press X, but my daughter found a way past this, obviously, quite easily.

Has she been able to successfully repeat these steps? No she has not. Although, in the meantime, I have also managed to purchase an item by accident! Is this an e-commerce usability success story, or a usability failure? Can a user interface actually be too useable?

I assumed (and was correct) that it would be very difficult to find usability information or studies relating to user interfaces being too useable. I decided to consider the easiness of the interface, in this particular situation, as being a ‘problem’ for me, the user. That is, what is the usability failure that enabled my daughter and I to purchase items accidentally from the PlayStation store?

According to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, there are 10 general principles for user interface design. He refers to them as “heuristics” (http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html). In my opinion, the PlayStation easily meets 9 of these 10 principles; however, the one principle it fails to meet is ‘error prevention’, which is described as:

“Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring
in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.”

Yes, what I am inferring is that from an e-commerce perspective, the PlayStation store has failed because it is actually too easy for a user to buy something — Did I just seriously write that? I remember the days of ‘not too long ago’ when e-commerce websites struggled horribly with usability issues. The main problems were that user interfaces were that user interfaces were complicated and confusing, which led to users who were not able to complete their purchases. On the PlayStation store, purchasing an item is so easy, that children and adults can do it by accident.

Over the last two months, this ease of use has cost me $19.98, but I still prefer too easy over too hard.

Ryan Minaker

Ryan Minaker is a professional technical communicator. With over 10 years experience in the field, he has played the role of technical writer, information architect, usability specialist, and content strategist.

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