Sunday, June 04, 2006

Introduction -- Thoughts at launch

This blogging adventure was born as the result of a multi-person rant I was a part of recently in a private online discussion forum that I belong to.

A fellow member bemoaned that fact that in his workplace, ". . . usability seems to be becoming a household word -- and not in a good way." More than 20 postings were added to the thread before the end of the day, from people representing all walks of the online human factors spectrum -- usability professionals, information architects, content developer/managers, etc. Almost all had similar stories to tell: companies think they're doing it because they've learned the terms "usability," "HCI," "user experience," "information design," and so on. (One contributor joked that the creation of buzzwords from useful concepts is what keeps MBAs entertained and employed.)

For those of us trying to evangelize these concepts, however, it can be very frustrating to see them hijacked by those who end up turning into the buzzword of the day, and eventually rendering them meaningless. Anyone who works for a firm that boasts of providing "word-class online service" knows exactly what I'm talking about.

I suspect that when you combine a healthy and admirable concern for online customer interaction with a misunderstanding of what usability and user experience truly entail, the best case result is "interaction design." What's missing, of course, is the most important ingredient -- feedback from, and contact with, actual users.

I recently asked the head of an online design team what her company's success measures are for the interaction designs they implement. She replied that the decisions they make are "based on the work the group's been doing for the past 12 years, as well as feedback we get now and then from our client partners." Nothing about return on investment via measurable ease of use, better time-to-task, improved user feedback, etc. (To her credit, she said up front that formal usability teating and tracking isn't something that was possible in her company's current situation.)

I witness the buzzword, "jump-on-the-bandwagon" mentality quite often -- I'll start talking about inserting some small-scale usability initiatives into our online development process, and I get reactions akin to "Aw, isn't he cute?" Then someone will show me with a screen shot of a proposed design and say, "Hey, take a quick look at this and tell me if it's usable." Eventually, it's going to take a constant, rigorous and tactful education process (backed by definable success measures) that will eventually (and hopefully) win the day. I just wish it didn't have to be so painful.

Now that the rant is over, I envision this effort as being part commentary, part reflection, and part personal development log, with hopefully a few fun things mixed in. As with all things virtual, however, nobody knows what's around the next corner, so we'll have to see what happens.

Thanks for looking in.


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