12/23/2005

Usability, Software and Web Credibility

Photo Source: NASA
"Usability applies to every aspect of a product with which a person interacts (hardware, software, menus, icons, messages, documentation, training, and on-line help). Every design and development decision made throughout the product cycle has an impact on that product�s usability.
As customers depend more and more on software to get their jobs done and become more critical consumers, usability can be the critical factor that ensures that products will be used." Denise D. Pieratti, Manager Usability Analysis & Design, Xerox Corporation

My definition of usability is minimal effort for maximum results. Others say it is that technology should work and not make you feel stupid, or that usability is anything that gives us the tools to build better software and Web content. Whitney Quesenbery's definition of the basics of usability is the best I've found.

As for you...why should you care about usability? If you work on the Web, create content for the Web, or use the Web...you should care about usability. For example, by incorporating just one usability technique, paper prototyping (sitting down with your software development team and using 8 x 11 inch pieces of paper and Post-itr notes to create prototype webpages BEFORE coding...you can save thousands of dollars in programing costs and staff hours by avoiding errors with this simple exercise. For more information on usability engineering, visit the World Usability Day website.

I belong to the Society for Technical Communication (STC). They have a number of special interest groups whereby you may attend seminars, meet, and learn from some of the experts, or just read up on the body of knowledge known as technial writing. STC has a number of special interest groups where you can gain in-depth knowlege in your particular interest, such as usability. You can visit the STC Usability Special Interest Group (SIG) website for the tools and Web resourses on usability.

OR...you can just visit the Website of the Leonardo DiVinci of usability, Jacob Nielson: http://www.useit.com/

Denise D. Pieratti, Manager, Usability Analysis & Design, Xerox Corporation, describes the steps involved in usability engineering as:

User and task observations�observing users at their jobs, identifying their typical work tasks and procedures, analyzing their work processes, and understanding people in the context of their work
Interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires�meeting with users, finding out about their preferences, experiences, and needs
Benchmarking and competitive analysis�evaluating the usability of similar products in the marketplace
Participatory design�participating in design and bringing the user�s perspective to the early stages of development
Paper prototyping�including users early in the development process through prototypes prepared on paper, before coding begins
Creation of guidelines�helping to assure consistency in design through development of standards and guidelines
Heuristic evaluations�evaluating software against accepted usability principles and making recommendations to enhance usability
Usability testing�observing users performing real tasks with the application, recording what they do, analyzing the results, and recommending appropriate changes

In reply to the question, "What does your poem The Road Not Taken, mean?", Robert Frost said, "What would you have me do...explain it in other and less good words?" So...I refer you to the following Web links to find out about how vital usability is to useful software and hardware in this digital age.

Why are tech gizmos so hard to figure out
http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/2005-11-01-usability-cover_x.htmThe Secret of Making things work
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4393468.stm
Pushing the right buttons requires a human touch
http://www.smh.com.au/news/technology/pushing-the-right-buttons-requires-a-human-touch/2005/10/31/1130720481954.htmlUsability and User Exprience Design: The Next Century
http://www.stc.org/intercom/pdfs/2005/200501_6.pdf
Virtual Communities: Weaving the Human Web
http://www.stc.org/intercom/pdfs/2005/200501_26.pdf
Book Review: Institutionalization of Usability A Step-by-Step Guide
http://www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/0505-institutionalization.html

Usability in Sweden
http://www.sr.se/cgi-bin/p1/program/artikel.asp?ProgramID=406&Nyheter=1&artikel=726365
World Usability Day in Israel
http://worldusabilityday.org/taxonomy/term/83
Usability question comes of age
http://www.hindu.com/2005/11/05/stories/2005110519080400.htm
Usability in Germany
http://www.dradio.de/dlf/sendungen/computer/435702/
Better Design from the Usability Pros
http://www.princetoninfo.com/200511/51102s01.html
For updates on usability, visit:
http://www.worldusabilityday.org/

But what good is usability without credibility? They are interdependent principals. The more credible you website, the more useful. If you can use the software...that's great, but is it believable? Nowhere is this more true than on the web. Once your software is easy to learn and useful, do you then use it to create credible material? In Beyond Web Usability: Web Credibility by TrentonMoss, he posits 5 principles of Web credibility:
  1. You must prove there is a real organization behind your website
  2. Your website needs to provide sensitive (important inside) information
  3. All statements should be backed up by third-party evidence
  4. There has to be proof that the organization is growing and has clients
  5. Your website needs to have an air of professionalism and confidence
Sadly, there is about as much misuse and misunderstanding of usability testing as there is of the use of statistics to prove a point or to find the truth. Even Blake Ross, the young Einstein who created the Mozilla Firefox search engine, pillories "usability" because of one usability lab at Netscape that apparently is to usability what graduate school poetry programs are to poetry: they bleed the creativity, serendipity, and life lessons out and leave only the bleached bone. In Blake Ross's words:
Here�s what I mean: put a digital picture and an instant message window side by side and ask Mom to share the picture. Even though the windows are approximately five pixels apart, sharing them is about as intuitive as a W2 form. It�s actually easier to share a picture sitting on a server in China than it is to share your own stuff. And you want me to gush about podcasting?
I expect more developers would be disgusted, too, if they interacted with Normal Human Beings using software on a regular basis. But the emergence of �usability� as a separate industry only insulates them. When I was at Netscape, we engineers would get reports from the user experience team that read like a chronicle of interplanetary travel: �The mantibulator did not conform to User D4�s expectations. User D4 said it always flippled when she wanted it to flapple, and vice-versa.� The reports would then offer a list of recommendations, such as: �Make the mantibulator flapple.�
The problem is that in the comfort of her own home, away from the duplicitous two-way mirrors of the usability lab, User D4�her friends call her Beth Miller, a florist with 2 kids from Ohio�doesn�t express her consternation as: �I�m disappointed that the mantibulator doesn�t flapple.� Instead, it sounds more like: �Why the hell doesn�t this stupid piece of shit work?�
But you never see lines like that in usability reports. And it�s the same story in product reviews, where you�ll find the tamer: �I found the mantibulator to be interesting, but lacking in its flapplability. Two stars.� Why is there this huge disconnect between how Beth really feels and what we, the ones who can make an impact, really say?
Dancing daintily around the issue only gives the software industry a free ride. Take a break from User D4 and spend some time with Beth. Taste her anger, her confusion, her exasperation. Then throw professionalism to the wind and give her a voice.
Mr. Ross's criticism of bad usability testing as he posits it is practiced at Netscape may be correct, but to extrapolate from his one bad experience at one company to condemn the entire field is a fallacy of logic. He may be brilliant when it comes to Firefox and I agree with him that the mother with children around her trying to get some work done is who should be asked how she believes the software really works, but usability testing, done right, can make her burden easier. For how to do usability right, visit Jacob Nielsen or the Usability Professionals Association website.
And white papers, done right, can reinforce good usability. See Zillan's White Papers for how to do it right.

No comments: