Breakthroughs in usable design

In a study by leading usability consultancy User Vision, “armed” corkscrews and disposable nappies are identified as being the most useful innovations in modern years.

‘Armed’ corkscrews and disposable nappies have topped a list of product innovations over the last 20 years which have made everyday tasks easier, according to research by leading user-experience consultancy User Vision. Automated call centres top list of least useful innovations.

The research asked 500 consumers to rate in terms of usefulness a range of everyday products and services developed over the past two decades which have made difficult, inefficient, inconvenient or time-consuming tasks easier. Armed corkscrews and disposable nappies topped the list, followed by TV remote controls, central locking on cars and gas barbecues.

Push button telephones came sixth in the survey, followed by electric screwdrivers, electric toothbrushes, compact broadsheet newspapers and ready-tied bow ties. Other popular usability breakthroughs included self-cleaning ovens, Velcro shoes, hair straighteners and a variety of web-based services including online banking and shopping.

The research also asked respondents to name innovations which were intended to make life easier but actually had the opposite effect. Automated call centre phone systems proved an extremely popular choice, along with ‘Pay at Pump’ petrol stations, digital-control washing machines and self-scan supermarket tills. The modern day issue of having to remember a plethora of passwords and PIN numbers was also a common frustration for consumers, with many mentioning ‘Chip & PIN’ as an example of an innovation which has made life more complicated for this reason.

Chris Rourke, Director of User Vision comments:
“While major technical innovations such as computers, the internet and mobile phones have obviously revolutionised the way we do things, simple solutions to everyday problems often get overlooked when it comes to recognising innovative and usable design. Many of the items which have emerged from our survey might sound simple, but they are the result of huge amounts of research and development by product manufacturers over many years. This survey therefore demonstrates the importance of usability in everyday life, these seemingly small and simple innovations which we take for granted, but ultimately make life a lot easier.”

The research was carried out in August 2005 by User Vision, a company which consults companies on how to make products and services more usable. The study asked a cross-section of the UK public to identify the five most useful from a list of 50 everyday products and services developed over the past two decades which have made a difficult, inefficient or time-consuming task easier. Technology hardware such as computers, mobile phones and interactive TV systems was not included in the list of options. The survey also asked respondents to spontaneously name any recent innovations which were supposed to make life easier but actually had the opposite effect.

The top 10 breakthroughs in usable design were as follows:

Item Percentage
Armed corkscrews 57%
Disposable nappies 50%
TV remote controls 48%
Central locking 42%
Gas barbecues 39%
Push button telephones 37%
Electric screwdrivers 28%
Electric toothbrushes 24%
Compact broadsheet newspapers 18%
Ready-tied bow ties 12%

% of people rating item in top five of most useful innovations

What Can you do next?

  • Read some more usability and accessibility articles.
  • Find out how usability testingcan help improve your product.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

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