Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Warm Usability For The Web

UX Magazine had a post entitled "Apple's pretty products work better" today.

The original article referenced can be viewed in it's entirety at Technology Review, which requires a login... unless you were to have a URL to the print version.

In particular the quote of interest is:

Attractive things work better,” says Don Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple from 1993 to 1998. “When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least feels like it does.”

This reminded me of a topic I have been meaning to write about for at least 2 or 3 years. I guess today is the day.

Usability without a doubt is a very important aspect of successful web design and development. If the site isn't usable, visitors will become frustrated and not return. If the site isn't usable the company behind that site will not see good results for their investment.

What is web usability?

According to Wikipedia:

"Web usability is a general approach: it is as much about the effectiveness of transferring information via the Internet, as it is about the smooth interaction of an end-user with online (and offline) software."

Jakob Neilsen is perhaps one of the most known and vocal web usability pundits. Mr. Neilsen has a great deal of experience in the field, with a Ph.D. in user interface and decades of experience. And yet looking at Mr. Neilsen's own website, one would have to wonder whether his formal education and practical experience in the field of large-scale applications have interchangeable application to the web.

I would say that Mr. Neilsen's approach to web usability, could be labeled "cold usability". It is methodical and solidly grounded in statistics.

Example for discussion: With the same goal, solution X allows the desired outcome in 1 less click and 5 less seconds than solution Y.

Which solution is more usable? According to "cold usability", solution X with 1 less click and 5 less seconds to accomplish the desired goal is the obvious usability winner. Numbers don't lie, right?

While having quantifiable metrics upon which to base your decisions is certainly desirable, I would have to say that "web usability" requires a broader approach. Why?

Humans are complicated creatures

Often our decisions and perceptions are not solidly grounded in cold facts. As mentioned in the the 1st of the 3 part Keyboard vs. The Mouse articles by Bruce Tognazzini (who happens to be a co-member of the Neilsen Norman Group along side the previously mentioned Jakob Neilsen and Don Norman), user perceptions and the numbers don't always agree. Specifically:

"We’ve done a cool $50 million of R & D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:
  • Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
  • The stopwatch consistently proves mousing is faster than keyboarding.

This contradiction between user-experience and reality apparently forms the basis for many user/developers’ belief that the keyboard is faster."

The numbers don't always tell the whole story. If the success of your website depends not only on the ability of users to find things quickly, but also that they "think" they are finding things quickly - more than "cold usability" is needed.

The majority of websites are not applications

Desktop applications are very task oriented. A program is successful if it allows a user to accomplish specific tasks in an efficient manner.

The majority of websites are not quite so wholly task focused. Many websites also must accomplish things such as branding & marketing which are difficult to quantify.

Perceived usability

In designing and developing websites we must consider usability an essential part of the craft. But must remember the inter-relation of the websites various goals. We cannot dogmatically state that "cold usability" is always of greater importance than other design considerations.

Perhaps we need to warm usability up a bit. Perhaps in designing websites the perception of usability is equally important to the number of clicks.

Maybe the aesthetically pleasing website design, like the attractive car mentioned by Don Norman, really does drive better.

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