Web Usability: Past, Present, and Future
Conducted via phone by John S. Rhodes (8-Aug-99)
How has usability as a concept changed in the last 10 to 20 years?
In some ways, there has not been any change at all. The fundamentals still hold true. The same core concepts of usability remain the same as they have been for a long time now. We are still concerned with ease of use, customer satisfaction, efficiency, and so on. In the same fashion, the methods have not changed much at all.
I wrote a text several years ago, Usability Engineering, that is still selling very well. When the publishers asked what I'd change I was initially at a loss. After thinking it over, the primary things to change would be the examples. They are rather old. However, I still believe the concepts are sound. And, they are still used today.
Even though there have been few changes in the concepts and methods, I would say there have been some small, and somewhat interesting changes. For example, several individuals criticized the field for having too narrow a focus on learnability and novice users in the early 1980s. There wasn't really a lot of research on skilled performance. It was unclear how expertise and learnability interacted. So, several years ago, considerable effort was put into understanding expert users. People thought that that would be the future trend. People thought that we could learn the most by studying experts.
The web changed the game. Things swung back toward the novice user; the user lacking knowledge of the system and the interface. With web sites, there is no training. You hit the site and it is in your face. Thus, if you don't make a web site effective in the first few seconds, you've lost the user.
Consider also that computer costs were once much higher than training costs and the related human support costs. So, again several years back, the focus was on the computer, not the user. Now, with the web, the computer is the lower cost. Training costs are up, and total human costs are higher.The "total cost of ownership" is also higher because human costs tend to run higher. These costs add up over time; they accumulate. Computer costs are somewhat higher initially, but they are fixed and static. Human costs are variable.
As an aside, let me point out that you can't find any substantial computer company, software, or web site, that doesn't have a usability group. There's been a total wave of change primarily because of the web. It has played a huge role in the shaping of the usability field. Web companies, for example, recognize that the web is a continuous purchase decision. Every click is a purchase decision. Also, unlike software, the costs of poor usability are immediately evident. With software, the company has your money, then you experience problems. You buy the software, take it home, and then the problems hit you. With the web, the web site must prove itself to the user, or the user will leave before the purchase has been made. Usability is immediately important and cannot be ignored on the web.
So, it goes both ways. There have been changes as some of the examples illustrate, but there have not really been changes in usability over the last 10 to 20 years. The core concepts are solid and the methods hold true.
The ability of the user to navigate to find what they want. If they can't find it, they can't buy it. That is clear. Without usability you are dead in the water in this regard. With e-commerce, usability is of major importance.
You want people to be able to find answers. You want people to understand what they are doing, when they are doing it. The answers are not as simple as many people would think. Let's take the example of a shopping cart. The concern not long ago was about people getting items into the shopping cart. Well, this actually didn't take long to tackle. We solved this problem quickly. The next question was perhaps more important: Are people actually buying what they put into their carts? The answer is often no. The cause is unclear but I suspect that users are doing comparison shopping. Again, we see that understanding our users' tasks is important. Also we see that solving a single usability challenge does not solve the e-commerce problem. The process, as you can imagine, is continuous.
What are the criteria? Well, as I said above, they have not changed much. The goals are to make it fast, easy, with the fewest errors. However, there are other additional goals that companies find just as important. They want to sell more. They want to sell add ons. They want to capture email addresses and contact information. They want you to register for their site. These are marketing goals, and they are important. When you think about it, they are also usability goals for the company. They want these marketing goals to be easier to reach. The company wants their business to work efficiently. So, the goals of the user are important but we cannot ignore the goals, and constraints, of the company itself.
At the end of the day, we always want to minimize the intrusions on users' time. Users value their time. We all value our time.
We want an "optimal user experience". Amazon.com recently introduced auctions. They don't usually fit with the user experience. This is not optimal, and it is not what most users want. At all. People think of Amazon in terms of books, at least for now. Trying to auction Barbie dolls to a user looking for a Java programming book doesn't make the experience right. It is nonsensical. On the other hand, when I recently bought a laptop computer, near the end of the buying process the web site offered me a CD ROM add on that exactly fit the specifications of the laptop I had configured. It was an option for me and my configured machine. And, it only took one click. This add on suggestion was a fluid part of my purchasing experience. I bought the add on once I saw how well it fit my needs.
First, you need to realize that there are going to be millions of specialized web sites. In some ways, we are already see this. These sites are more important than larger sites in some very interesting ways. There will be experts with web sites that fill very specialized niches, and these sites will be very valuable. They will have a core focus.
There will always be large sites, but they will look and feel mostly the same. In many respects, these will be bland and very general. They will also continue to serve many purposes. Yet, the large sites, I think, can never match the robust nature of the smaller sites. The collective islands of information, when connected and aggregated, are much more rich and useful than any single large portal site. The large sites depend on the rich information offered by the smaller, specialized sites.
The smaller sites will soon be much better. I think that there are better tools coming to help developers. The site management will be streamlined and the tools will be much better than what we see today. This is an opportunity, by the way. There is a niche to be filled. Toolboxes are needed. Companies that provide such tools and services will be rewarded well I think. For example, I am on the advisory board for a startup company called Searchbutton that allows sites to include fairly advanced search features and to run search log analyses without writing a single line of code or messing with any server configurations or installations.
We know very little about human behavior. It is important to understand how people think, and why they act the way they do. The single best method, if I had to name one, would be observation of real behavior. Watch people do what they do. Watch them perform their day to day tasks. It is incredible to watch someone work. Analysis of the task is important here as well.
By the way, we are not talking about user preference. A survey is virtually useless. And, a focus group generally will not help us at all. Management decisions based on this kind of data are suspect. They are flawed, and I am very concerned that there is such an emphasis on surveys. You must watch users. You must observe their behavior. You must understand their performance, not their preference.
What research needs to be done? There is so much that needs to be done. First, it must be empirical. Also, it must involve us watching people do what they really do. So, make it naturalistic. Use discount usability testing methods. They were, and are, very effective. You really must use a representative set of users too. The sample must be of real users. Then, you can watch people resolve real problems. Even artificial tasks are useful, when you have real users at your disposal.
Let's take an example. Watch someone perform a search with a search engine. You can learn a lot about a search page doing this. You can learn even more about the search results page. You can see peoples' problems with the page. You can see their frustration. You can see how they solve, or should I say, don't solve, their problems. Many people don't realize that people are not searching, they are problem solving. They have information needs. They are looking for answers.
We can see that we are fundamentally working with an attention economy. Human factors and economics are coming together. Usability has a direct impact on the bottom line. And, we are not talking about thousands of dollars. There are millions of dollars at the feet of usability researchers, and usability research. Since the impact is huge, I am somewhat puzzled that there is no more research being done.. Actually, I am appalled at the lack of empirical research.
There are a growing number of companies doing research in-house. This is good, and the religion is catching. But, it is data about their own site, and it is very narrow. Often, they are using the wrong methodologies. Well, first, they might be doing nothing. Often though, they have a good budget, but they lack attention to detail. They lack the right pool of users. And, the usability studies are often done by the marketing department purely for marketing purposes. Not for true usability, not for the user. Of course, you can tell that I am concerned. So much research needs to be done.
Usability become a necessary injection into the corporate toolbox. For a company, usability becomes imperative when the product and the interface are critical to success.
Usability can't be denied, rejected, or ignored.
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© 1999 by John S. Rhodes. All rights
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