Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Usability and Respect

I recently wrote about the display board outside our office on which I post inspirational UX and usability quotes.  Shortly after I published that post, I discovered that someone had scrawled “waste of time” and “waste of money” on some of the peices of paper I had posted on the board.

At first, I was really bothered that this childish act of vandalism and cowardice occurred in a secure, professional building.  But, the more I thought about it, the more saddened I became that people really believe that usability is a waste of time and money.

I tweeted and Facebooked about the defacing of our display, and I received tons of support from my online social network.  But, that is to be expected because a large number of my online social network are professionals in the web design/UX/IxD/IA/usability fields, so they already get it.  It’s a lot like complaining to other women about being a victim of sexism.

I answered the coward by posting real-life examples of positive ROI of usability:

Since then, I’ve come across some other items that reinforce the fact that, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, usability gets no respect.

On 7/1, Dilbert did a pretty good job of summing up what it’s like to have the higher ups not understand and respect it:

And, just today, usability guru Jakob Nielsen published an EXCELLENT Alertbox titled “Building Respect for Usability Expertise“!

So, why isn’t the field of usability respected by many?  I think part of it has to do with the fact that humans have fragile egos.  As a usability consultant, I frequently have to tell programmers and managers that the website or system on which they’ve just put in many hours of hard work isn’t usable.  That’s not something they want to hear.  Some (thankfully not all) of those managers and programmers respond to this constructive criticism by rationalizing that usability is a “waste of time” and “waste of money” because it’s easier than facing the fact that what they designed isn’t perfect.

Now, that’s my personal opinion.  Jon Meads has a much better explanation, that he succinctly described in his paper “Laid-off usability engineer, or why we don’t get no respect“:

Software engineering got no respect in the early 1970s. Companies were incorporating minicomputers into their systems. Software was a necessary evil, but what was needed was usually simple to program. Anyone could be a “software engineer” even if the code he produced was structurally isomorphic to a common Italian dinner. Few software managers would insist on having systematic development processes. It added cost, and software had only to be good enough.

Usability engineering is now in a similar situation. Systematic process isn’t needed, according to management. Nor are professional knowledge and experience—that would add cost. Designing the user interface according to guidelines is sufficient, they claim.

Jakob Nielsen used the term “user advocate” to describe usability practitioners.  And, a very apt term it is.  We are advocating for more usable systems for all users.

However, we must also be usability advocates.  Both Nielsen and Meads suggest that to build respect for usability, we practitioners need to preach the benefits of usability.

I hope I’m doing my part with this blog. 🙂


User Friendly ≠ Usability?

Whenever someone asks what I do or what I’m studying, and I see his or her eyes glaze over when I launch into a definition of HCI, I usually resort to saying, “I want to make things like web pages and software applications more user friendly.”

Most people understand that term because they can relate.  They’re users, and they like things to be friendly.

We are currently in between projects in the Usability Lab where I work.  So, I’m passing the time by catching up on all those things I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. (Well, not ALL of them, but a few anyway!)

I’m finally reading Nielsen’s Usability Engineering in its entirety (instead of the few chapters that were assigned for a class discussion).  Neilsen gives us five attributes with which to measure usability (learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction).

He then states (emphasis is mine):

Even if you do not intend to run formal measurement studies of the usability attributes of your system, it is an illuminating exercise to consider how its usability could be made measurable.  Clarifying the measurable aspects of usability is much better than aiming at a warm, fuzzy feeling of “user friendliness” [Shackel 1991]

So, after reading that, I began to ask myself just what exactly does “user friendly” mean?  I did some quick Googling, and I discovered that not many people really know!  It does conjure up a “warm, fuzzy feeling” doesn’t it?

When you last used Orbitz  to book a flight, did you feel warm and fuzzy afterward?  Probably not.  You may have been satisified with your interaction, but, did you really think that Orbitz was “friendly” when it showed you all of the flights from O’Hare to San Fran on one particular date?

So, I’ve decided that I now need to find another way to explain what I do and study.  How about, “I want to make things like web pages and software applications easier to learn, more efficient and satisfying”?

Anyone have any suggestions?  How do others explain what usability is to their non-HCI family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  Please leave a me a comment if you are so inclined 🙂

Is it so hard, really?


I made an online payment recently. It was a farily simple, and straightforward process.  I filled out a typical form with the CC # and payment amount.  After I clicked submit, I received a confirmation page.  Two days later while online banking, I saw the total subtracted from my checking account.  All was right with the world.

Except, yesterday when I got home from work, I had a voicemail telling me that my payment was due last Friday and since I hadn’t made the payment, I was now being assessed a fee.  What?!

I call the customer support line.  Once I get through the automated prompt and explain the issue, it was resolved quickly.  In fact, as soon as I finished telling my story, the CS Rep said, “Oh, I bet I know what happened…” Then, she proceeded to tell me that if you put a dollar sign in the field for the payment amount, their system doesn’t process the transaction properly.  I asked her if that happens frequently, and she said, “All the time”.  After resolving the problem, she ended the call by saying, “Remember, next time you make a payment, don’t use a dollar sign.”

Ummm.  Ok.  First, why was there no note by the field that said not to use dollar signs…or maybe even have a dollar sign right in front of the box?  Second, why no error checking when I submitted the form?  And, third, but the most obvious…if it happens all the time, why not fix your form??


PS…If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly), or Sci-Fi, or comics, or musicals, or just good comedy, you MUST check out Dr. Horrible!


Side Note:  Obviously, I’ve been away from blogging for a little while.  I discovered that working full time and attending grad school full time, and planning a wedding all at the same time was quite overwhelming. So, blogging about HCI took a backseat for a little while. But, yesterday, I started a new job as a “Usability Consultant/Information Architect”.  So, now I am immersed in HCI in both work and school.  So, I think I’ll be returning to blogging 🙂

For the past three years, I’ve worked for Indiana University (IU) in a tech support role (I’d been in tech support for 10 years prior to working at IU, as well).  One of my duties was to administer a certain web app.  When I took that role over, I was thrown into a project of designing a new app to do the same functions as the old one.  About two years ago, during the design process, we had the university’s usability lab conduct user testing.

I watched the testing and was fascinated. Here was an app that I thought had been designed very well and would pose hardly any problems to users, and here were users who had problems!  I found it kind of exciting to be wrong. It was eye-opening to see users use the application in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

I had no idea that the field of Usability existed before those tests.  But, while I was observing those tests, I remember thinking to myself, I want to do that!  I want to walk people through tests of applications and tools and find out how to make them better!

As I got to thinking about it, I realized that all of my experience in tech support was leading me to this point.  I had made a career of helping people use poorly-designed yet functional applications and tools.  But, after the tests, I realized that what I had been doing was a bandaid.  To truly solve people’s problems with those applications, the applications themselves needed to be redesigned.

So, I began to do a little web-surfing about usability.  I discovered that IU had an excellent HCI/d program, so about a year ago I applied and began my stint as a grad student.  I decided from the beginning that I wanted to work in usability and made that the focus of most of my classess and assignments.  And, secretly, I wanted to work at IU’s usability lab, because I already loved working for IU in a different department.  So, what could be more perfect than doing usability at IU?

After my first semester, a graduate assistantship position with the usability lab opened up.  I applied for it, was intereviewed, but didn’t get the job.

Fast forward to about 3 weeks ago.  I had finished my first year as a grad student, and had another year to go until I had a degree.  A full-time job opening at the usability lab was posted.  I figured I wasn’t qualified since I didn’t have my degree yet.  But, I figured there’d be no harm in applying, and if I could get an interview, then at least I’d keep myself on the radar of the people who worked there, so that when I did have my degree and another position opened, I’d be in a better position to get the job.

So I applied.  And, I interviewed.  Four days later, I was offered the position.  And, yesterday, I started the job.

In the past three weeks, I’ve said goodbye to a job and coworkers that I really loved, I’ve switched platforms (from Windows to Mac) and am learning all new apps, and I began what I thought was my unachievable dream job.  Plus, I’m still going to be going to school full-time come September.

And, I thought I was overwhelmed before!  But, this overwhelming feeling is a good one.  I’ve been doing more in-depth web-surfing on usability and discovered a whole new level of overwhelmedmness (yes, I just made up that word!)

There’s just so much out there to read and and so little time….