Useability is one of a number of terms that cause all sorts of wrangling in the writing, particularly technical writing, community.
The definition is simple enough: It refers to how easy something is to use and learn. But within those simple words are manifest permutations.
I tend to feel that, as the judge said about pornography–”I know it when I see it.” And I saw a rotten example and a great example this weekend.
For several reasons, my wife Lori and I decided to buy new phones this weekend–We’ve tried replacing the batteries in our old Motorola, but it hasn’t helped.
So off goes I to The Bay. Which is pretty much as cheap as Wal-Mart these days, but sells far better stuff.
I purchased a General Electric three-handset phone (both offices and the garage), which came with an answering machine. We don’t need the answering machine, ours is part of our VOIP service, but it did come with the unit. The phone was selling off of a clearance table. Regular price $110 or so, clearance price $64.
The box had to be opened on three sides simultaneously. So that the contents pretty much immediately spilled across the table in a jumble. There was no packing list in evidence.
The manual was a map-folded piece of oversized paper which unfolded like some origami explanation of string theory and extruded as far as a small neighbouring dimension.
Weirdly, the information in the manual was divided into above-the-mid-fold and below-the-mid-fold sections. So the instructions on how to set the thing up abruptly ended at the fold, where the instructions for running the answering machine started. There was no visible division, so the instructions were confusing initially.
Having puzzled through the first quarter-page I abruptly discovered that the batteries needed to be charged for sixteen hours prior to first use. Good thing I read instructions.
Not that it helped. Some eighteen hours later I made and received our first calls, only to discover that the little display screen which is apparently so necessary on phones these days didn’t work.
So after some reverse origami and muttered bad language I forced the box closed again and lumbered it, now slightly bulging and distorted, back to The Bay.
The people at The Bay were just excellent. They had no similar GE phones, but in the meantime they’d put a new sign on the clearance table where I bought the first: “Save an additional 20% on last stickered price!”
I discovered a Panasonic unit with FOUR handsets (living room, both offices, and garage). Formerly priced at about $140, it was on for $76, minus the 20% … I got a net refund of some three bucks, and a better phone that, as events had it, worked perfectly.
But the real treat was the packaging. I wish I’d taken photos of it: The box opened with a flap on the top. Immediately beneath it was a diagram of how to re-pack the phone should it be necessary. With arrows. And numbers. I like arrows and numbers most times.
The four handsets rested on top in a little tray. Once they were removed, a large, friendly, red-and-yellow label read: ATTENTION.
Such a label rather demands reading, and so I did. It instructed me that FIRST I must INSTALL AAA batteries and charge for eight hours. And it showed me where in the package to find them (which was right next to the handsets in plain sight). The manual is an old-fashioned book type.
So which of the two phones would one tend to find more useable?
I find the phone quite generally usable without having read the manual, so far. But honestly, they had such smart and simple ideas that I’m saving it for when I next need something entertaining to read, because I’m sure it will be a prose delight.