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Usability is an Island


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#1 cre8pc

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 03:07 PM

John Rhodes is in my head :shock:

In a blog entry from his WebWord, on 11/16, he wrote:


Usability is an Island


I think it is funny, ironic really, that most usability specialists never talk to designers or developers. They preach, they write, the moan. But, they don't get up and talk to designers and developers. Until usability folks weave themselves into the fabric of the development process, the power of usability will be lost. Until the language of developers and designers meets up with the language of usability specialists, it'll be horses talking to pigs.


Thank goodness I was trained in usability surrounded by designers and programmers and got to literally sit with them during meetings and actual coding. This kind of experience has saved my butt more than I can say, because I had to understand what they do, to do what I do better.

The other thing that's been on my mind for a few months is the disconnect between the pros, and their articles, blogs, and books, and the small businesses that come to me for help. I'd venture to say many small businesses don't read usability or human factors stuff because most of its buried in academic circles and organizations. Fact is, a lot of the time the pros write in terms I struggle to understand, esp. when they get into debates.

I can clearly see, in my usability testing work, that small and medium businesses want more than design help (how does my site look?). They know, on some level, that their sites aren't converting. Many of them have fantastic products, and the basics of design are covered. Others, though, are using old style design things like textured backgrounds and animated banners. They're still designing for themselves, not their end users or customers.

Many aren't aware they're even doing this, or are in denial.

It's interesting to talk to them. They refer to "my webmaster" and I learn they believed their web master knew everything from design, to SEO, to user centered design. It's a shock when they learn this isn't always so. Most of them have never heard of "conversions". They just know their sites "aren't selling". This is their terminology.

I think John has hit on something that's overlooked. Communicating with teams and clients. Finding common language. Understanding needs. Confronting truths. Getting the right messages to the right people.

John wrote:

Designers and developers need to understand that the business needs usability to survive and thrive. It is a competitive advantage, but designers and developers will ignore it until management makes it clear that products are too hard to use.


I've seen it work in a corporate environment. It wasn't easy though. Getting everyone on the same page, and accepting that usability is critical to the long term success of any software app or web design...one of my co-workers hated me so much she would avoid me in the hallways. This was because I went from being a designer, to a usability tester. This is not an easy job :shock:

But I'm more concerned with the startups and small/med businesses with web sites. I spoke with a gentleman yesterday on the phone about his web site. It's not converting. From a design standpoint, it's attractive, well laid out, and functional. His webmaster is quite talented. The application that is the main thrust of the site had very few defects, and none were critical (it allows customers to design and order his product on line.)

But, the site itself didn't sell the idea of what he was trying to present. He claims most people leave as soon as they get to the homepage, regardless of how nice it looks.

John wrote:

Usability knowledge has increased and there are some great tools available, but the problem is that the knowledge and tools aren't getting into the hands of designers and developers.


Yes. I'm seeing this too.

So, how do we get this knowledge out to those who really want and need it?

#2 sanity

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 03:58 PM

Great article.

Until usability folks weave themselves into the fabric of the development process, the power of usability will be lost.

From where I sit what I see often is people trying to work out the best time to bring in the usability expert. Before they start, at the end, in the middle etc etc. They kinda know they need usability testing but don't know where it fits into the process. So it can be easier to just put it off. Usability experts need to clearly show where they fit into the scheme of things.

Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think has some excellent chapters on usability testing - and how simple and cost effective it can be. A good read for anyone from designers, project managers to busines owners. Heck even usability experts would find it valuable. ;)

#3 James

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 04:39 PM

Website design and usability go hand in hand each other (as well as many other disciplines).

Another book recommendation is Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Websites by Andrew Chak. It's not got as good a reputation as Steve's book, but I think it's an equal read.

#4 radiorental

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Posted 19 November 2004 - 12:39 PM

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#5 projectphp

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Posted 19 November 2004 - 04:21 PM

The problem with any area that is not 100% mission critical is that it is usually sold as a bolt on solution. Usability and SEO both suffer this fate. Neither is mission critical, after all, an unusable website is still live, but a broken one won't be. As such, the heavy hitters are called in late, and often have to fix problems that, in design and analysis stage would have been trivial to fix, against a backdrop of hostility.

The earlier SEO and usability experts are called in, the better a sucess a project will be.

Until usability folks weave themselves into the fabric of the development process, the power of usability will be lost. Until the language of developers and designers meets up with the language of usability specialists, it'll be horses talking to pigs.

I think that, in 5 to ten years, a web designer that can't talk the language of sales, marketting and financial benefit will be extinct, or managed by someone who can.

Web designers and web developers need to understand that they are, in the vast majority of cases, online marketers first and foremost. No one needs a website, and a website that doesn't meet sales and marketing KPIs is doomed. A usable, SE friendly design with options to test different conversion issues is the future. Designers and developers that don't understand these issues will eb in trouble.

But, the site itself didn't sell the idea of what he was trying to present.

So many elements combine to make a website successful, and unfortuantely this situation is all too common. IMHO, we are headed towards an era in which Interent Markerting savvy people will be running the design process, in the same way that Architects design buildings, and project managers get them built.

The era of specialists without any business savvy or overview of objectives running projects inevitably ends, and as the web matures, I think this is the direction web development wil take.

#6 dlumerman

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Posted 29 December 2004 - 04:33 PM

The problem with usability is it's difficult to touch and hard to explain.

When people ask me what I do, it's much easier to tell them I'm a web designer, even a web developer than to tell them I do usability work, which produces blank stares.

If I do venture into mentioning usabillity, it's usually followed with "It's where to put the button", even though this is an over simplification.

I have found the greatest success for my usability endevors is to pick and choose the battles and in the process have converted many delveopers, department heads and program managers to think about usability sooner in the process for the next project. I should say I'm in a large company but I think most of this relates.

David Lumerman
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#7 bwelford

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Posted 29 December 2004 - 04:55 PM

Welcome to the Forums, dlumerman. :wave:

I agree, Usability is not the best chosen word for what it covers. Perhaps it should be introduced as the way you get websites that users can successfully use. It may trigger more useful discussion than just homing in on the buttons. :)

#8 DianeV

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Posted 29 December 2004 - 05:30 PM

I think that, in 5 to ten years, a web designer that can't talk the language of sales, marketting and financial benefit will be extinct, or managed by someone who can.


I think it's already going that way, Michael. A background in marketing and sales is a definite plus in designing/building websites.

#9 kensplace

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Posted 29 December 2004 - 05:49 PM

Usability, tools, knowlegde, experience, accessibility, the whole kit and kaboodle is worth nothing when people are not allowed to use it, practice it, or program it.

Often that is the case, software is sometimes ruled by marketing, and management who dont give a diddly squat about the end result - they just want quick returns and promotions before they leave and make another company suffer.

The real problem in the industry is the dead wood at the middle and top level that STOPS the people who know that they are doing from doing what they do best.

You may think this does not apply at your firm dear readers, but when the software you USE to develop, or do your accounts etc is written under those circumstances, it means your development tools etc are flawed - ergo end product is not what it should be.


When bullying, idiots, sexism and harrasment (both sexes both ways included) and racism, fear and loathing are removed from the big corporations - then we will see a dramatic improvement in software.

It may sound dramatic, but after seeing what I have seen, and knowing what is deliberatly let loose on customers, due to problems I have described - its true.

#10 dlumerman

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Posted 29 December 2004 - 08:20 PM

Welcome to the Forums, dlumerman.


Glad to be aboard. Very interesting and lively discussions.

Dave Lumerman

#11 thirstymoose_2000

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Posted 30 December 2004 - 12:42 PM

In most situations I think that designers need to become the usability experts.

Just as any other design discipline, function is part of the design. Architects, interior designers, automotive designers, graphic designers all have to think about the function of their design.

Are there readability and legibility experts in the print world? In most situations, no. It is up to the graphic designer or DTPer to make sure that their design is able to communicate the information or idea as intended.

I'm not saying to get rid of the discipline as a whole. There is room for usability experts to study and develop strategies for effective and efficient use of online applications. There is always room for improvement.

I still don't believe in this whole usability vs design thing --- they are one in the same. Usability is part of design.

#12 dlumerman

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Posted 30 December 2004 - 04:39 PM

I still don't believe in this whole usability vs design thing --- they are one in the same. Usability is part of design.


Having designed for most of my life now (there's a realization for you!) I generally believe your statements. A good designer takes usability in consideration when designing.

The difference becomes in the interaction part of the design. Some designers are better at it than other, some, show no aptitude at all. On the flip side I've seen usability folks who couldn't draw a straight line with a pencil.

Interaction design is just different than general design.

David Lumerman
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