Back in the 1970s, it took a multimillion-dollar mainframe to complete tasks that today can be done by the average desktop. Thus, the idea of dedicating valuable processing power and programming to the task of designing screens that simplify and speed up the use of a particular program or even of an entire computer network was laughable.
The arrival of cheap, all-powerful desktops changed that. Suddenly, it became economically sensible to spend time developing resource-intensive user interfaces — screens that graphically represent the arcane, typewritten commands that would otherwise be needed to make a piece of software run. Today, colorful menu bars and glitzy graphics are just some of the sophisticated tools usability engineers have in their arsenal. They also use scan recorders to track how computer users move through a software product’s command screens and where they make mistakes — then strive for ways to make the task so intuitive that it’s idiot-proof.
Usability experts also perform in-depth studies of how businesses run, so as to ensure that software with a six-figure price tag is compatible with existing workflows — or even better, simplifies them without requiring a sweeping reorganization, which might doom the software installation to failure.