by Craig Marion
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 2, October 2000
I used to study philosophy. In a class on the philosophy of religion, we studied several arguments for the existence of God. One that I could never get into was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in 1078 and became known as the ontological argument. My professor set it to the tune of Waltzing Matilda. One of the verses, as I recall, went like this:
If that than which nothing greater than can be conceived
Can be conceived not to exist
Then ‘tis not that than which nothing greater than can be conceived
This is unquestionable, I insist.
Which is to say, Anselm defined God as the greatest being that could be conceived. From this he reasoned that if you had another being that was like God in every way but lacked the attribute of existence, then you could conceive of an identical being who did have the attribute of existence. The second being would be greater than the first. Ergo, God exists. Q.E.D.
I was happy to find that Thomas Aquinas skipped this particular argument in his Summa Theologica a century later. In subsequent centuries, though, it may have been ignored, but it wasn’t refuted. And then, in 1787, Immanuel Kant drove a stake through its heart. Insisting that being was not an attribute of a concept at all, Kant pointed out that if you had a real sauerbraten and an imaginary sauerbraten, and they both looked and smelled and tasted the same, then there was absolutely no conceptual difference between them. The fact that one existed and the other didn’t was irrelevant. Saying that something exists or not, doesn’t tell us anything more about it conceptually.
After the exam, I tucked this esoteric knowledge away until the early Nineties, when the company that employed me became enamored of the quality movement and reengineering. We spent the better part of a year delineating our processes, scrutinizing them, and seeing where we could improve them. Then we would reengineer those that could be improved. For some reason, the ontological argument popped into my head again. I drew the analogy between processes having “quality” and being having “existence” for one of my co-workers, and asked what the attribute of “quality” told us about processes. She grunted, as I recall, and suggested that we get back to work.
Well, now it’s the first decade of the new millenium, and I’ve been involved with the usability movement for about five years. It’s occurred to me more than once: what’s the difference between “usable” software and just plain “software that works the way it’s supposed to?”
The answer—for both quality and usability, I believe—hinges on the meaning of “works the way it’s supposed to.” Once, processes just evolved. They were changed sometimes, but they were never systematically evaluated. Having standards applied made them quality processes.
In a slightly different sense, software has always been evaluated, but only to satisfy internal QA departments. Recently the meaning of “works the way it’s supposed to” has been redefined. It isn’t enough for software not to crash; now it has to satisfy its users. Only software that does is usable software.
Still, there’s something to the analogy. Usability, per se, isn’t an attribute, just as quality isn’t. It’s a way of looking at something and determining whether it fulfills its purpose. The reason the quality movement became prominent in the early Nineties is that standards began to be applied. The reason the usability movement became prominent in the late Nineties is that standards changed.
In one sense, the adjectives “usable” and “quality” don’t tell us any more about processes or software than “existence” does about a concept. Rather, they tell us something about the expectations they’re measured against.
I haven’t been following the challenges facing the quality movement today, but one of the largest and most important ones for the usability movement is to clarify expectations. And while Anselm may have regarded his argument as unquestionable, no one is likely to say that about usability standards in the near future.