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Usability Doesn't Operate in a Vacuum


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#1 peter_d

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Posted 07 September 2004 - 09:44 PM

Joel on the anthropology of interface design.

#2 Ron Carnell

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Posted 07 September 2004 - 11:32 PM

Absolutely dynamite article, Peter. :)

#3 cre8pc

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 10:34 AM

The article is a rant from a software app perspective, and if taken seriously or as fact, would not only put me out of business, but entire software dev QA departments, user testing companies, etc.

What he is getting to, later in the article, is what I do see and feel and have been eluding to in some of my writings, but he says it pretty well with

Over the next decade, I expect that software companies will hire people trained as anthropologists and ethnographers to work on social interface design. Instead of building usability labs, they'll go out into the field and write ethnographies. And hopefully, we'll figure out the new principles of social interface design. It's going to be fascinating... as fun as user interface design was in the 1980s... so stay tuned.


He's far ahead of most corporations and light years ahead of home and small businesses who are still just trying to find a 3rd party shopping cart that will do what they want without chasing away potential customers.

He's tapped into the social aspect of computer-human interaction. Nothing new there, and still being studied, as it has been since before the Internet became popular and before that even. He's intrigued with the possibilities, and so am I.

UI consultants are constantly on the defensive, working up improbable ROI formulas about the return on investment clients will get from their $75,000 usability project, precisely because usability is perceived as "optional," and the scary thing is, in a lot of cases, it is. In a lot of cases. The CNN website has nothing to be gained from a usability consultant. I'll go out on a limb and say that there is not a single content-based website online that would gain even one dollar in revenue by improving usability, because content-based websites (by which I mean, websites that are not also applications) are already so damn usable.


For the record, I do not ask for $75,000 per project. :)

Yes, usability is still perceived as optional. It's an afterthought. But to think it's not vital to the long term success of any web site or application is insane. Most of the work I get is "rescue us" type of jobs, because though a site may be functional and easy to learn, sales and traffic are pathetic. Usability is way more than function or design.

Another "afterthought" is QA testing and focusing on debugging and defect tracking, which he writes about but showcases his own defect tracking software. It's alarming to see this work slammed as possibly of little value. Tell that to the performance engineers who save companies untold monies by making sure software app changes don't bring down servers or work so slowly that customers refuse to purchase the upgrade.

He writes,

Suppose your user does something they shouldn't have done.

Good usability design says that you should tell them what they did wrong, and tell them how to correct it. Usability consultants are marketing this under the brand name "Defensive Design."

When you're working on social software, this is too naive.


I don't call it "Defensive Defense". I call it being considerate.

It's better to design it right from the beginning, but this isn't happening. Most forms we use online still act as if everyone lives in a country with states and zip codes. Many shopping carts are a confusing maze of buttons. In QA testing, one of our jobs is to purposely try to mess up in every possible way, because sooner or later, someone will do something the application wasn't designed to do.

Getting back to the social software side of the piece, I've yet to see these sites do more than connect people and then forget about them. He uses Orkut, LinkedIn and Friendster as examples. I would add Google's PageRank to this pile. The foundation for these things is a rating system, which for me has always not been anything more than a popularity contest. They're easily influenced and manipulated and based on opinions.

When software implements social interfaces while disregarding cultural anthropology, it's creepy and awkward and doesn't really work.


The article is called "It's not just Usability". Nobody said it was, but just imagine what the Internet would be like without it.

#4 mugshot

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 11:08 AM

Well put Kim!

The internet would not exist without usability in existence. The fact of the matter is even with content website like CNN, I am certain that their designers put a fair amount of consideration into how readers will want their news presented.

Granted that not everyone will be pleased, but majority probably will and have been.

Social aspects of how people interact with websites is a field of study that will be ongoing pass shopping carts and contact forms. It still tickles me sometimes when people pay $5000 for a shopping cart :)

What's the point of having a start-of-the-art shopping cart when no one can even get to it? It's like having the best merchandise in your store without any checkout lanes in sight.

#5 cre8pc

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 11:26 AM

Still reading the piece, and thinking about it, I realized Joel didn't get into an area of social design that involves young people.

What came to my mind, while writing about this thread in my blog today (It's Not Just About Usability. It's About The Beer. ), I got to thinking about issues here at home with my own kids.

Instant messaging isn't an innocent way to gab. It's a wide open field of people who can pretend to be what they're not. Xanga requires membership to put up a site, but what prevents predators from yacking it up in the kids' guest books?

Social interface design is fascinating to me, but like lots of things related to the Internet, it's still human inspired invention. I can see my role in usability testing shifting from user centered design to human safety oriented design.

blech! :)

See also Report: That Engagability Thing by John Knight

John Knight of The User-Lab described the aims of the conference. 'There has been a lot of interest in engagability and the conference papers began to focus on defining engagability. The main themes of the papers concern how products and experiences connect to the human as visceral, behavioural, reflective and social interfaces.

'I am hoping that next year's papers develop this definition with case studies of design and experience to see how useful the model is in the real world.'



#6 mugshot

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 11:38 AM

Instant message is the root of all evil :) It is so darn usable and addictive that you can't help but keep typing and chatting with strangers...

Social design is most talked about in HCI groups too.

#7 peter_d

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 05:24 PM

Joel is actually quite big on usability and the importance of effective interface design. He's published a book on the subject, has a few million people using his software products, and one look at his site will tell you he knows how to translate usability theory into practice (translated into 31 languages, no less!).

I liked this article because Joel nailed an important point: patterns of behavior in social contexts are an important facet of effective design. He provides an excellent example: txt messaging on the mobile phone. Txt messaging is cumbersome and awkward compared to talking, but txt provides an essential benefit: flirting. Watch teenagers - this is exactly how they use txt. A usability study would not show this - an ethnographic study would. If you were a phone company and decided to make the interface more usable (i.e. dumped the txt capability in order to fit your new UltraClear2000 Voice Recognition System), you're not going to sell many phones to teenagers next quarter.

As using a computer becomes less like using a calculator (task oriented) and more like using a telephone (communication oriented), the analytical framework will change too. Less ergonomics, as it is now, and more an examination of social context and terms of engagement beyond the human-computer interface.

BTW: Is it just me, or does anyone else think Jakob is sounding more and more like a marketer these days ;)

#8 DCrx

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Posted 08 September 2004 - 08:06 PM

Perhaps what this thread needs is a map of HCI paradigms, from cognitive psych to what may be coming. ...you can't tell the social interfaces from the distributed cognition without a map.

#9 cre8pc

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 11:53 AM

DCrx, thank you.

That article, I was surprised to note, was written a year ago. Yet it's so relevant and for me personally, a needed bit of information. Lately, in this field (which is hard to describe what the usability field is these days because it contains so many arms), I've been feeling pulled in too many directions.

I'm heavily influenced by my mentor, who has her Phd in Human Factors. She trained a group of us, all user interface engineers for a dot.com company to design with the end-user in mind. I was further trained and then self-taught to incorporate usability and human factors theory into software application QA testing, where I was later placed by the company. It's there that I learned the value of working closely, even sitting chair to chair in front of the monitor, with our programmers. While things made perfect sense to them, I had to show where perhaps it would not make perfect sense to our customers using the application.

I still do this type of work, but the more I do, the more I see two things.

1. The vast majority of web designers and programmers believe that standards are inflexible. Described in the article you mentioned in this paragraph:

The recent spread of "guruism" in the field is probably a result of the deficiencies of the above theoretical approaches. Both practitioners and the more theoretically-oriented experts make comments, such as "users do not want to scroll," or "users do not want to look stupid," or "base your design on user data, not on assumptions." I do not want list names here most readers will be familiar with at least a few of the gurus. Sometimes, I feel I've been transported back to the psychology school wars of the 1920s, when people cited a guru to carry their point in a discussion.


I was in this school of thought early on, but the natural course of late is to see, as a result of hands on work, that every application and every web site is unique and must be addressed this way.

2. The emotional and cognitive aspects are foreign concepts. The article expands on this, and explains, even briefly, how expansive "usability" is.

What is the point of usability? John Rhodes wrote his thoughts on this in Profits First, Users Second.

He has said, in WebWord yesterday, he agrees with Joel, and he references the same paragraph that upset me, about usability being optional in some cases.

I have to admit that I'm stumped and likely just not getting their point (Joel and John's.)

I see this work and the whole user centered design (web site, software, web designer, programmer, hardware design) as being sorely needed and fascinating as it blends with all the technology out there.

Is there value in studying the social, emotional, behavioral aspects of this field or is it fluff for the hard core human factors folks? Does the average company with a web site or software development company care about these things?

Should they?

#10 DCrx

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 03:35 PM

Is there value in studying the social, emotional, behavioral aspects of this field or is it fluff for the hard core human factors folks? Does the average company with a web site or software development company care about these things?


Keep in mind offering the average company IAs, IDs, SEOs, Social Interface designers, Usability gurus, Egagability folk, Social networking specialists, HCI practitioners, User centered (not to be confused with Use Centered designers), Affect this and Cognitive that, there is a risk. First, it directly contradicts the "don't make me think" idea by forcing potential customers to do just that. Second, there is a real potential this will foster a pox on all your houses attitude in the marketplace.

So what is the future for all this title inflation? Well, ask yourself how many Chief Imagineering Officers (or any of the other make believe titles) there are around anymore.

Pretty much the state of affairs with prounouncements from the medical community on just about every food and most kinds of treatment. Is chocolate bad for you today? ...just wait a few days. Meanwhile people go ahead and do whatever they want.

Business should not have to care about this endianness. That this is fluff is more an attitude towards the newness and difference from traditional HCI technique. There is value to the new ideas -- strike that -- there is potential value should people act on the ideas. This suggests a future of factionalism as new ideas fail to be integrated into design practice. Not hyperspecial spiffy title design practice, just plain "get the thing up by next month, darn it."

Things do not have to be this way, but the terms of the system dictate how this plays out -- unless the system dynamics change. Until then, a pattern will play out just as if scripted. (Rent Groundhog Day from Blockbuster. Watch it five times. Then you'll be just about where I am right now.)

#11 peter_d

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 05:24 PM

"get the thing up by next month, darn it."


And that is the business reality. "Show me how my bottom line will benefit, or stop wasting my time".

There is a disconnect between the academic side of UI theory and the business case. The UI research is noble, necessary and good, but at some point it must translate into value if it is to be implemented.

John Rhodes stated this in the article Kim referenced and I agree with him. Any service vying for dollars must both provide and show bottom line value. Business won't listen to endianness and warm fluffy ducks about being good.

If usability, as a value-added service, is being pulled in many different directions, perhaps it is because usability is still struggling to find a place in the value chain. Therein lies the problem, and the solution.

#12 bragadocchio

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 06:17 PM

I'm not sure that usability is a value added service.

The users of a site aren't just the people who buy a product, but also the people who sell that product. Just as there's an interface with the computer that the customers see, there's one that the people who fill orders see.

I spent a few weeks a few years back in a part time seasonal job in an order fulfillment warehouse for a company with a major online presence. I felt that I was being given a learning opportunity that couldn't be matched in any other way. And I was right.

The benefits of a usable system didn't end on one side of the web site. They extended throughout the organization. The manner in which orders were taken didn't just benefit the visitors to the site, but also the people who took those orders, pulled the products, packaged them, labelled them, and shipped them. The methods in which problems were responded to and resolved made it easy for all involved.

Some examples of how usability throughout an organization can make a difference:

Applying the Mobile Paradigm

A snippet:

One of the most important factors of enterprise mobile deployment is usability. With mobile systems, it is critical that usability be a priority. You need to ask yourself how practical this solution is. For instance, if your solution requires large amounts of information to be entered via stylus with a low tolerance for error, then you will have a usability issue. Although such issues are usually commonsense, it is often difficult to identify them if you are not very familiar with the capabilities of mobile devices. In any case, you should plan for hands-on usability testing as early as possible.



Task Analysis is also an important aspect of usability that can help you build something that will fulfill business objectives by giving you an understanding of how tasks are actually performed. This isn't an after the fact testing, but one that takes place, before, during, and after the creation of a product or a web site.

See: Goal Mapping using Task Analysis

A snippet from there:

Deliverables from this process include interview transcripts, a large-scale visualization of your users' mental model for the task or tasks at hand, and gap analysis of your user's needs against the services your business provides


When John wrote "Usability is merely a quality that is associated with a product", I'm not sure that I agree. Usability is also a quality that should be associated with a process, and if it is integrated into that process, it makes fulfilling business objectives that much more possible.

#13 peter_d

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 07:17 PM

I'm not sure that usability is a value added service.


I'm refering to segmentation of roles and how the service is commonly sold in relation to the web.

I have no doubt about the importance of effective process and device usability. But that isn't what I'm talking about. Let's substitute the word "usability" for "ergonomics". Ergonomics is not appropriate to process, but is to devices. The term usability could conceivably cover anything.

In order to return value, I use direct marketing strategy. I use split/run testing for designs and layout. I dump the losers and run with the winners based on user activity, and the measurement of success is conversion to desired action. The process is iterative. I watch what users do and base my actions on their activity.

Is that usability? I call it marketing. Would a usability consultant add value to this strategy? What would they do for me?

#14 cre8pc

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 07:44 PM

I was able to prove to one company that the $150,000 they spent on a design that was not tested for usability would be a complete failure if the design they bought was used.

That's value, in my book.

#15 bragadocchio

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 07:47 PM

The peoplesoft case study that adaptive path provided on their page may supply an illustration to how that's accomplished.

You're seeing one side of it here:

I use split/run testing for designs and layout.  I dump the losers and run with the winners based on user activity, and the measurement of success is conversion to desired action.


But, a task analysis could give you a fuller picture of what is actually happening with the people who use your website, and a set of tools to help you create that testing of designs and layout.

#16 bragadocchio

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 07:52 PM

Their case studies on design evaluation also show off some of the ways that usability provides real benefits to a business.

#17 peter_d

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Posted 09 September 2004 - 11:35 PM

I'm beginning to wonder what the term Usability doesn't encompass :D Here's a few definitions.
I'm using this definition: " An overall evaluation of how a system performs in supporting a particular user for a particular task."

Usability appears to me to be mostly about the ergonomics of task driven applications. Which is fine, and I can see the merit, particularly for in-house applications where you're paying staff on a time and productivity basis.

If the web is mostly a means of communication, which I think it is, then a task-driven perspective is too simplistic a framework for an analysis about usefulness.

#18 bragadocchio

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 12:39 AM

Nice set of definitions.

One of the pages that DCrux pointed towards, on HCI Paradigms had a wide range, too.

I seem to see a few people practicing usability who attempt to take context into their analysis.

Here are some resources that do:

Creating a user-driven development process: in web time

Usability is not Graphic Design

Task-Centered User Interface Design

#19 cre8pc

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 08:05 AM

Usability appears to me to be mostly about the ergonomics of task driven applications.


Usability testing goes way deeper than this. It's a discipline. It has a starting point and branches out from there. The starting point is the goal setting for a web site or an app. It could be setting requirements for something as simple as a form. This is where I find many errors in usability testing. Programmers are concerned with the functionality and error prevention and UI is thinking "this is so easy. I can toss up a form and people will fill it out." These are the people who make phone numbers a required field, but neglect to ask when it's a good time to call someone living in Taiwain. They neglect to put in an alternative for those who prefer no phone calls, rendering the form useless to those folks.

Newsletter signups are another area where conversions are often null. I'd guess 90% of the client sites I test have a pathetic sign up process, and wonder why nobody is subscribing. There's a good chance they never explained in detail what a visitor is signing up for.

In lab testing, tasks are assigned to see how people interact with an app or web site. Can they find such and such? How long did it take? Did they get lost along the way? Or side tracked? This is when we discover that during the buy process, the visitor abandoned their purchase because a big stupid banner was placed in their path and they clicked off the web site.

This is when we discover that people are using apps and pages in ways never envisioned by the designers.

There's a place for academics and then there's what I do, which is find what's going wrong and suggest ways to fix the problem.

I'm a usability mechanic and there are a lot of us out there.

#20 DCrx

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 11:07 AM

Hmm. This was a lot easier to understand as the blind men and the elephant diagram of post web information design. Of course you may note in the diagram the blind men are facing and actively engaging the elephant, but it's a small quibble on my part.

This is when we discover that people are using apps and pages in ways never envisioned by the designers.


What we're talking about is mental models, and the interaction between them. Another perspective, for the "everything I need to know about design philosophies I learned in kindergarden" set, is the difference in perspective from golden rule and platinum rule.

Next, some ideas for those reading the thread thinking social interface is a redundancy, or alarmed by the thought computers must be interfacing in some asocial sense, there is some reading to do. (note: in a sense, even being antisocial is a form of social act) A good one I have on my shelf is The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places; byByron Reeves and Clifford Nass. There may be some dispute about this selection as social interface design, but again that would be splitting elephant hairs.

More Spolsky thinking in Building Communities With Software. Joel has been "plugging away" at the social software thing for a while, yet not a lot of definitions or methodology. Usability may not exist in a vacuum but this social interface idea seems to.

#21 cre8pc

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 11:57 AM

Thanks for this DCrx! This is the first time I've laughed out loud in this thread :lol:

You make splitting hairs too fun :P

#22 DCrx

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 02:38 PM

I've always wondered why more standup comedy isn't done on the topic of technology. Technology is much better understood as a series of setups and punchlines. Hey, jokes as social interface.

Or, everytime Microsoft makes a joke...

"We said, 'What we need is some automatic content!'" a former Microsoft developer recalls, laughing. "'Punch the button and you'll have a presentation.'" The idea, he thought, was "crazy." And the name was meant as a joke. But Microsoft took the idea and kept the name-a rare example of a product named in outright mockery of its target customers.

-- Absolute Powerpoint, Ian Parker



#23 kensplace

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 03:15 PM

The problem with usability is the average user ability.

Hey I'm a poet :lol:

Watching how users do things, and making the site/software fit around that is ok, but not perfect, as most users are clueless - so what you would be doing is making software that is designed around how a clueless person operates.

Far better to write software that is easy to use, but helps the user understand what to do, also to educate the user (good supporting help files, manuals, tooltips etc). You dont get in a car and expect to be able to drive without taking lessons first.

By all means watch what irritates a user, and fix that, but dont design around a small test case of users, as there are too many different types of people out there.
The programmer (if he or she is a excellent one) often knows a lot more than management gives credit for, in fact most software usablility problems are down to
marketing or management imposing rules/designs that shock most good programmers to the core.

The other problem is, some firms dont want to make software or website's usable, in fact they often deliberately leave problems in place, so the user is forced to pay for support contracts.

#24 DCrx

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 03:56 PM

You dont get in a car and expect to be able to drive without taking lessons first.


Well that is true enough. But you don't make every car so different you have relearn how to drive to get a new license, and every time there's a new model, or every time the roads are repaired (upgraded) and so on. From one perspective that would make more money for the car company. From another perspective it would so alienate the customer base there would be zero buyer loyalty, people would resist buying new models (upgrades), and in other words would be pure economic suicide.

Good thing computers are different from everything else in the universe.

There's usually a philosophic hack ... a lacunae (a cognitive loophole). For example the military tried to leverage the user's driving experience with the carefree abandon concept. The idea is flying even a modern, sophisticated jet should be no more difficult than driving a car.

It isn't just about users not wanting to think. It is about getting the stuff they don't want to think about out of the way so they can think about those things they do want to think about. In a dogfight you don't want to know you could have lived if you'd only have studied page 1257 more carfully. Training still takes place, and there is money to be made. However it is not training about the jet OS, and "if you only get used to the comandline firing interface, you'd find it much more intuitive than a trigger." Training consists of flight tactics, strategy, and those things that get you home alive. And people find this is training they would rather spend money on because it fits a larger objective. The developer wins by aligning objectives with users -- everybody wins.

#25 peter_d

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 05:07 PM

The developer wins by aligning objectives with users


...and the business case. Agreed.

A general question: Usability experts, how do you measure the effectiveness of usability changes made to websites, particularly websites that aren't applications, or websites that aren't task driven? What forms of tracking and measurement do you use? How do you show the value you provide?



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