Who Do You Make Your Usable Web Site For?

As much reading, research, testing and study on all things user centered design, usability and accessibility that I do, what always sticks and leaves a lasting impression on me is when I watch someone try to use a web site application. The experience is unique to each individual. Some incidents leave a lasting impression on me.

It happened again a few days ago when I was visiting my 70 year old parents. My father, a retired electronics engineer and computer programmer from its early days, went to Google Maps because he offered to find directions for somewhere I needed to go for a business meeting later that day. He had a devil of a time with the application.

I wasn’t sure if it was due to age. He’s in top form, a runner in excellent health, and is far smarter than I am. He has no disabilities other than recent cataracts surgery, which only served to improve his eyesight. His mind is clear and motor skills excellent. And yet as I watched, he tried to make the map do things it wasn’t ready to do because he hadn’t given it enough information first. He thought he could bypass some steps and when it didn’t respond as expected, the software just stopped being usable for him.

I wanted to ask what was confusing as he used it but I fell into a little testing role, where I didn’t want to add any suggestions or ask questions about the steps he took. I just watched. I would have entered a start and end address from the start, but he was confident he only needed the address of the business and the map itself would give him what he wanted to know. He didn’t want directions in text. He wanted to refresh his memory of the geography of the area that he knows so well, and then he would know for sure, in his mind, how to get me there without needing Google’s directions.

He couldn’t get the actual map to work. One click led to something confusing to him and it was downhill from there, until he slowed down and accepted the limitations of the application that had a mind of its own. It could only do what it was programmed to do. It wasn’t programmed for a stubborn visitor who had his own way of using it.

An article called
UK usability market to grow 20% in 2007 – new report
caught my eye. My first thought was that 20% is far too low. It states that competition is driving an interest in investing in usability and accessibility.

What a shame it has to be about money or branding.

I get my passion for usability by watching people struggle with web sites. What kind of company builds a web site or application and doesn’t conduct user testing? All kinds. Those that do look for target market users who fit a known set of criteria the site is designed to be used by. Thing is, this is the Internet.

Just when you think you designed and launched a web site or application that you believe is an absolute no-brainer to use, someone comes along who makes it do something different. You likely won’t know where they are or when they’ll appear. Abandoned pages won’t tell the story. They’ll just point to signs of trouble.

I couldn’t help but wonder what a Google developer would think, watching my senior citizen father use their map application. I wondered how many senior citizens they brought it to test it. With so many developers obviously below retirement age, how many are considering the needs of older people who use the Internet?

Money isn’t the only incentive for usable design.

Sometimes it’s the desire to make things work for people who depend on us to make things work for them.