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End-User Usability and Nit-Picky Web Design  

:: Monday, October 03, 2005 ::

One of the most difficult jobs of any developer is meeting everyone's expectations, including the people who are expected to use what you build.

End-users of web sites and Internet-based software have become bulls in a pen, ready to ram the fence at anything that distracts them, causes frustration, scares them, is hard to see, hard to use, and well, stupid enough to jump into their pen without at least a discount coupon.

In other words, as people who use computers get better at doing it, web sites and software applications have to be smarter too.

We've gotten past blinking text, spinning logos, blend effects and navigation menus that break out into 15 more staggered levels. Today we have Investments in User Experience.

"Recently, a number of product releases (albeit in beta) from Microsoft and Yahoo have highlighted a significant investment in interface design.

* Yahoo! Mail’s upgrade is predominantly being evaluated on the merits of “desktop-like” interface.
* Much of the buzz around Microsoft’s Office 12 release is focused on UI improvements.
* Microsoft’s Max team is trying to drive innovation through user experience design."

Design without concern for how it will look or perform is out of the question these days.

Writes Daniel Kuoin, in his critical evaluation of web fonts for Typography and the User Interface:
"When it gets down to brass tacks, choosing the right screen font for your user interface can be summed up in a few words: Verdana, and sometimes Tahoma. Of course I'm being facetious when I say that, but only partially; indeed, when building Web applications, the choice almost always comes down to one of those core Web fonts, sometimes with a corporate brand face in a supporting role. Yet it's important not to draw a priori conclusions and limit your options without reason. Finding the opportunity to employ a unique typeface will change the entire character of a product, in as subtle or dramatic a fashion as you design."

His introduction to the article nails what I've been observing.
"There is a quiet issue that nags at the computer industry. While processing speed and computational flexibility have grown at incredible rates, our displays, the most human-facing elements of our digital lives, lag behind."

I don't think we're lagging behind as much as learning what works, and for whom what will work and enhance the visitor experience the best. The learning process is slowing us down, not our desire to do right by end-users. (If you're a font fanatic, his article is a must-read.)

Nick Finck is interested in customer experience and writes his thoughts in The State of the Experience. He leads with:
"When I started creating sites in 1995, the only experience we were concerned about was if there would be an online experience at all."

That's the year I also started out. To this day I'm haunted by conversations that went like this:
Person one -"We need a web site."

Person two - "Why? We publish magazines. People read them when they get them."

Person one - "We need a web site for them."

Persons two - "Why? What do we put on it that they don't already get, for their paid subscription?"

Person one (who by now I'm sure you figured out is the CEO) - "We need a web site. Our competitors have one."

Many web sites back then were Internet versions of something that was birthed in print format first and forced to work online, just for the sake of having something there. There was very little thought or concern for who was expected to use it.

Navigation is crucial to everything from cell phone design, to airplane cockpit, to web sites. It remains one of the most common reasons for abandonment issues. To help you understand this better, see Navigation - our visitors' travel guide by Chris Heilmann. It's an excellent piece. Chris writes,
"On the web, we know nothing whatsoever about our visitors."

and then he goes on to explain, with good detail, all the kinds of end-users generally left out of the design process.

Are we learning anything?

Yes, if you have tons of money to spend on case studies, usability studies, human factors experts and developers who cut their baby teeth on user centered design. That means most of you reading this are still being boinked in the bull pen. Case in point, Jakob Nielsen's 2005 Top 10 Web Design Mistakes, where he writes:
"This year's list of top problems clearly proves the need to get back to Web design basics. There's much talk about new fancy "Web 2.0" features on the Internet industry's mailing lists and websites, as well as at conferences. But users don't care about technology and don't especially want new features. They just want quality improvements in the basics..."

Which brings me to the disgruntled member of Cre8asiteForums who visited the Gap's highly touted, newly redesigned for better usability web site.
"The web site locked me out while I was doing a purchase and was not back up for three days. This is after their launch."

Or my experience with my cell phone company that lets you make changes to your plan online. According to the web site, changes go into effect 24 hours after you submit them. I had removed some features, and expected a smaller cell phone bill as a result. Not only did the removal of features NOT take effect, but the addition of some others never did either. So much for online use and customer satisfaction. The application worked as far as the front-end, but did not work on the back-end.

User centered design includes QA testing and usability testing. How can we expect the public to get excited over hyped up technology when basic needs aren't yet met?

And he builds good web sites too

Sometimes being creative and trying something unique works. Such was the case when RustyBrick's Barry Schwartz asked his lovely girlfriend, Yisha, to marry him.

I wish you both every possible happiness.

:: posted by Kim Krause Berg on 10/03/2005 11:56:00 AM

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