Let’s Take Usability Up a Notch

According to Jakob Nielsen, web usability testing is now in its 14th year. Testing itself, as you know, is as old as time. How many humans suffered from upset stomachs before they finally tested and figured out that ginger settles things down? You have to figure that eons of time devoted to testing what we use everyday makes the teeny bit of web usability testing seem primitive.

In his latest Alertbox article, Change vs. Stability in Web Usability Guidelines, Nielsen says not much as really changed over the years. What didn’t work in the past, still doesn’t. He writes, “More than half of the usability findings from the 1990s remain in force.”

While I see the same design mistakes on small web sites and startups by beginners, when it comes to larger business and corporate sites, there’s a definite presence of someone who knows how to drive design. Navigation is logical and the better ones understand how to create momentum along with guidance and direction. Color contrasts are far better. Options for different types of site visitors are evident with better accessibility and categorization of information or products.

I sensed a bit of anger behind Nielsen’s article. He goes to great lengths to show the “enemies” of usability exactly how much time and effort goes into the study and testing of user centered web design. Indeed, he has taken the brunt of most of the ridicule, as the bad guy who demands guidelines and rules for design.

While I, too, don’t take everything he writes as gospel, he does lay the groundwork for a foundation to build from. He never says don’t be creative. He’s just hoping we listen to our “users” and watch how they use web sites. He wants you to design for visitors who come with a purpose in mind, not what you or your designer thinks looks cool.

You can debate forever the usability, or not, of the dynamic, intuitive web. It’s a silly fight. Many of the top Fortune companies have a usability or human factors department with people trained in understanding and testing user behavior. Every time a design changes, there is risk involved as new ground may be broken. Some people will love the new gadget and want more of it. Others will be frustrated because you’re making them learn something new.

CNN has a beta redesign running alongside the present version. They know not to suddenly pop the new design out front without first getting user feedback to make sure their ducks are in a row. However, the link to that beta version is below the page fold and unless you’re scanning the page for interesting topics, you may miss it. When they do switch over, I’m sure their team is well aware that they’ll get angry emails from regular online readers, despite their efforts to prepare them.

Web site visitors have never taken surprises gracefully.

The Internet application design process, when done properly with software QA and usability/accessibility specialists on the team, tests the purpose, logic, momentum, and function of every single click, field, link, label, user instruction and button. They go through sheer hell, testing in various environments, measuring and analyzing data , before somebody who has never seen the application tries to use it. This kind of attention is not often part of the web design process for mainstream designers and developers.

Just imagine what would happen if it was.