Monday, January 29, 2007

Usability and human-centered design on 60 Minutes

The Jan 28 episode of 60 Minutes featured a segment called "Get Me The Geeks!" -- on the surface, it documents how the deluge of technology into our daily lives has made us addicted to highly complicated gadgets and products. They're so complicated that we can't set them up by ourselves and can't fix them when they crash, break, or otherwise don't work as they should.

Look a little deeper, though, and you'll see confirmation that increased focus on usability and simplicity in design is necessary now more than ever before -- and that there's no indication that the need is going away any time soon.

Dr. Donald Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things, an oft-referenced work in our field) is featured prominently in the piece, offering the following insights:
  • ("When people call up geeks to come and fix something or install it, a lot of them seem very apologetic for not being able to do it. Should they be apologetic?" ) "Absolutely not. No, it's not their fault. It's the damned designers of this stuff who have no understanding of real people, everyday people."

  • (on own his inability to install an HDTV) "Someone complained to me, ‘You'd need a degree, an engineering degree from MIT, to work this damn thing,’" Norman says. "Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT. And I couldn't work it."

  • (on a not-too-distant future where appliances run the house) "So what's really gonna happen in 10 years is, all these things are getting smart," says Norman. "The kitchen appliances will talk to each other. Can you imagine, you go to the refrigerator and it says, ‘No. I've been talking to your scale – that's not on your diet?"

Monday, January 22, 2007

The dangers of using the mirror

I recently read David Gilmore's "Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Design Research" (Interactions 9, 3 [May 2002], pp. 29-35).

This article tackles the dilemma of making the case for an ethnographic approach to user research – i.e., how to differentiate it from marketing research. The critical point seems to be that they are two kinds of research studying the same thing (potential users):
  • Marketing research uses generalities to inform business decisions;
  • User research uses a true understanding of user concerns to inform design decisions.

The author argues that encouraging stakeholders to hold a mirror up to themselves -- to self-observe and to tell specific stories about their own experiences -- is a good way to open the door of acceptance to detailed user research.

Gilmore's right about the need to differentiate between marketing efforts and user research efforts. However, when push comes to shove and dollars are on the table, I’m hard pressed to believe that self-observation and storytelling alone will be enough to get decision makers on-board.

I've been involved in too many instances where those in power used self-observation to kill any efforts to research the users of their products:

  • "Hell, I go to plenty of web sites, and nobody I know does it like that!"
  • "I asked a few people around my office, and they all do it this way."
  • "Common sense should tell you that most people would do it this way."

Either that, or they use marketing/sales objectives to justify a design decision. I'm reminded of a job I once had as content administrator of a 1800+ FAQ database. Someone came up with the idea that links to purchase information should be included at the end of every piece of FAQ content. The thinking was, "while we've got their attention about the product they already own, why don't we provide a link to a detail page for one of the product's accessories? If they don't click on it, fine -- if they do, we may have a potential sale."

All well and good, but they didn't take the user into account. What if (s)he was having trouble with the product and came to the site to get troubleshooting information? These people would likely have at least a small amount of irritation or frustration that their product is not working properly -- is that the right time to hit them up for a sale? In this case, what on the surface makes sense for marketing could actually harm user relations.

Influential stakeholders may indeed need to be educated on the value of detailed user research, but deflecting the observations back on them probably isn't the answer. Better to demonstrate value in terms of bottom line (decreased calls to customer support, increased traffic to a buying environment, etc.) and of benefits that come from designing with real user goals, motivations and attitudes in mind.

As Gilmore ultimately states, "The aim should be to develop a design process grounded in the realities of people’s lives, not in stereotypes."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Giddey-up, giddey-up 508

There's nothing like the threat of being sued to force companies into "doing the right thing."

A lawsuit against the Target store chain, claiming that their website fails to meet the minimum standard of web accessibility, has put a lot of companies in panic mode. At my place of employment, the push for accessibility compliance has led to the reevaluation of almost all web-based products and software.

Web users with special needs (blind, impaired vision, deaf, cognitive difficulties, etc.) can use assistive technologies like screenreaders to help navigate websites. But if, as is usually the case, the site was designed and constructed with this group of users as an afterthought, those technologies are of only limited value.

Here's an analogy -- The designer of a beautiful new hotel realizes that wheelchair users require a ramp to gain access to the lobby from the street. He finds a way to do so without disrupting the design vision he's already established by locating the ramp in the rear of the building. Legally, he's covered. But these special needs users must go around to the back the building to get to the ramp, then navigate numerous hallways simply to get to the check-in desk. Has accessibility and accommodation really been achieved?

And the issue goes further than accommodating the disabled. As we're reminded almost daily, the graying of the US population is going to mean big changes in all facets of everyday life, and websites will not be immune. Older users means more consideration must be given to accommodating users with diminished vision, hearing, fine motor skills, memory, information processing, and spatial abilities. Forget about meeting government mandates -- failing to accommodate these users will mean risking a significant portion of overall sales markets.

Trouble is, there currently is no set minimum standard. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998) provides a mandate for government websites and is most often used as the de facto standard for private enterprise, but even this is imprecise. In the end, companies are left to do what they can given various forms of suggested guidelines, accept that trade-offs are eminent, then make a decision for themselves as to whether they are at a point where they can reasonably argue that they have met the 'minimum standard of web accessibility" (whatever that ends up meaning).

To test your favorite sites, use one of the following tools:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

From the mouths of babes

Not about usability per se, but it cuts to the quick of what's required when providing or designing something that's to be used by others . . .

From an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, written by a middle school student seeking better alternatives for keeping kids off the streets:

You should always ask middle and high school kids what they think they
need, instead of only listening to grown ups tell you what they think we

Deja-vu all over again

Happy New Year to all.

I came across a couple of articles recently that touched on a theme I experienced in previous professional life --
  • In Sale must end: should discount methods be cleared off HCI's shelves? (2002), Cockton & Woolrich assert that discount usability methods (heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough, etc.) produce results that are so error-prone as to be unreliable and of little value. Consequently, they run the risk of undercutting the validity of traditional full testing and the damaging the usability field as a whole.

  • In the Nov 14 '06 edition of Brain Sparks, Jared Spool asserts that the execution of the most recent World Usability Day draws attention to the wrong aspects of the usability profession (from a business perspective), and that it could wind up doing the field as much harm as good.
If I read both articles correctly (and my apologies to the authors if I haven't), the concern centers on the viability of the usability practitioner within the design process and the prestige of the profession within the business enterprise.

For the first 10 or so years of my professional life, I was an in-house corporate video professional. Back then (circa 1990), the buzz was that the use of video was going to explode within the communications departments of corporate America -- perhaps not to the point of full-fledged TV studios in every headquarters, but at minimum a group of professionals taking advantage of the "democratization" that the medium was experiencing.

At the same time, a number of influential people in the field worried about the possible downsides: If more and more companies had the ability to create their own programs, where did that leave the seasoned "professionals" of the day? Would select instances of a more visible and expanded role within the business be worth the risk of more and more examples of sub-standard quality -- a "dumbing-down" that would ultimately cause more harm than good?

As an active member of the predominant trade group of the day, I was very friendly with video pros on both ends of the spectrum -- heads of entire video departments in large-scale businesses, as well as "one-person shops" who were trying to produce enough product to justify their jobs. Equal amounts of fantastic work and absolute crap were produced on both ends of the spectrum. And the video revolution kept on going -- accessibility to equipment, resources and distribution expanded to the point where now you don't need any formal education or professional experience to become a video "star."

In the end, of course, the key was the ability to provide, and prove, value to the business. If the business wasn't getting adequate value for the effort, its use of video was scaled back or eliminated altogether. When I think back on most of the projects I was responsible for in those early days, I honestly wonder what my employers were thinking when they decided to jump on the video bandwagon. On the other hand, for those who were able to derive tangible value from the effort, it didn't matter what was going on in the video world at large.

I can't help but think that HCI/usability is at the same point in its development and acceptance. It's not so much of a crossroads, where the field will take one direction or another. Rather, it could be seen as a widening of the same single road forward. Providing value keeps us near the center line, where moving forward is easiest, and allows the road to accommodate more travellers. Inevitably, some who join the journey will cling to the shoulder, using means, methods and approaches that are risky. Some of those will fall by the wayside, while others will wind up providing even more momentum for moving forward.

To take this automotive analogy one final nauseating step further, my guess is that business is beginning to see enough tangible benefit to what we're doing that use of discount methods and uncertainties over self-promotion are really very minor bumps in the road. As with any facet of business, the measure of value that HCI/usability provides will be the determinant of its fate.