Why I blog about usability

“I had a headache for five days in that week.” During the parliamentary recess in February this year, MP Helen Goodman set herself the challenge of spending just £18 a week on food. She had received lots of messages from constituents worried about the bedroom tax (which hadn’t yet come in) and decided to see for herself what it would be like to survive on the resulting lower income.

As you might expect, it was a miserable week of watery porridge, headaches and filling up on toast. She spoke about her experience in a parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax:

It was completely impossible to have meat or fish; that was out of the question. It was also impossible to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a week […] Most shocking of all was the fact that come Sunday I ran out of food — there was literally nothing left to eat that night.

Goodman has been praised for caring about her constituents, for speaking up about the problems with the bedroom tax and so on. I’m impressed with her for another reason: she was doing user testing.

Before the bedroom tax was introduced (or, to put it another way, before the spare room subsidy was axed) in April, there was plenty of debate about the effect it would have on people’s lives. I’d expect any decent policymaker to make use of the information available on housing, cost of living and so on. But Helen Goodman went a step further and actually tested the system.

She put herself in the shoes of “women on employment and support allowance who are about the same age as me, but who had to stop working owing to chronic health conditions”, worked out how much a woman in that situation would have to spend on food and then tried it for herself. When she criticises the policy, she now has the weight of personal experience behind her words.

A lot of my usability blogging is light-hearted, on trivial issues like buying shoes in small sizes or getting confused over garden furniture. But Goodman’s experiment goes to the heart of why I care about usability: it’s about empathy.

My personal definition of usability: organisational empathy. An organisation can’t empathise with you, but usability gives it the tools to behave as if it does. It’s impossible for an organisation as a whole to care about or respect or listen to its customers, because it’s not a human being. But the framework of usability allows an organisation to behave as if it’s capable of caring, respecting and listening. We don’t need the organisations we interact with to actually walk a mile in our shoes; we just need them to carry out some user testing. We don’t need them to care about how we’re feeling; we just need them to have a reliable system for recording and acting on our feedback.

Helen Goodman isn’t the first politician to try living on a low income; it’s been done many times before to prove a point, raise someone’s profile or provide a story for a telly programme. But I think her approach is new, the idea of testing out the system “to see if I could survive”. I’d love to see more of that approach. What if user testing was a standard part of policymaking? Imagine a world where all politicians tested their own policies in this way, or at least hired professional test users to do so on their behalf. Instead of expecting “the Government” or individual politicians to have empathy, perhaps we should put systems in place to ensure that you don’t need personal empathy or imagination to create workable policy. In other words: organisational empathy. In other words: usability.