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What’s So Scary About Web Site Usability Reviews?

My initiation into usability was cruel. Looking back, however, I think the experience taught me how sensitive web site owners are. Some may want to let the air out of your car tires in exchange for your honesty.


I changed her name for this story, but trust me. She hates me. She was the Project Manager for a company I worked for. In my first year there as a User Interface Engineer I was assigned to a web site redesign project. Janna came to me with a site design that was determined by some mysterious person I never met. My job was to implement all the changes the stakeholders wanted.

I did. It was a web site driven by a huge application that was also being redesigned to be more user friendly. Every time Janna and I met, I changed fonts and colors. I’d move fields and check boxes. I did whatever I was told, even though inside my head, I was asking “WHY!” Some of the enhancements made no sense. I couldn’t see how we were improving the site.

One day, I overheard a salesman selling the new web site to a potential client who might have wanted what the application could do. I was shocked. We were still in development, with no testing planned and I wasn’t aware of any roll-out date. I couldn’t understand what he was selling. Was it the site I was working on that I knew sucked?

I Leave Janna

One day, my manager approached me and I figured I was fired. Not sure why…paranoid I guess. He led me to the Director of our department, so I knew I was so fired then. I was partly correct. It was obvious that I had no eye for design. I could code like a banshee and spot an error from the town next door, blindfolded. I could tell you, without knowing how I knew, what was going to blow up or confuse someone.

So, it was decided to put me into their software QA testing department. I had no idea what that was but it didn’t matter. The QA Engineer assigned to train me was adorable and we became instant friends. They hired a Human Factors person for the UI department who was also assigned to train me as best she could on usability. What I didn’t know, I set off to learn on my own, with them funding the bill.

I was fully trained in software functional QA testing. They had to rewire my brain because QA is so disciplined and controlled that I drove my manager nuts. My Director saw my talent and wanted me for himself, but to handle my growth, he assigned a very calm man to “manage” me. I thought that was funny and very smart. Tracing FR’s and BR’s is the stuff of nightmares.

As I was learning how to wrestle with Rational tools (now owned by IBM) and spent more and more time in “important” meetings, it came to pass that a new web site was moved from development into the QA testing arena. It would be my very first assignment as their first (and only ever) User Interface/Usability QA Engineer.

The site was the one Janna and I had worked on.

Janna Wants to Kill Me

The first thing I did was show how the site wasn’t working. The application wasn’t functioning. It didn’t meet functional requirements. The site was a user nightmare. There were so many band-aids thrown at it that it was no longer even a shadow of its original self.

A few months went by and that poor little web site NEVER got past QA. I was never able to sign off on it and say it met and passed our testing. The site slipped quietly into the spider webs of the building and Janna hated me.

She would see me coming down a hallway and turn down an aisle so she wouldn’t have to breathe the same air. When the company bought a third building and moved the QA department there, I thought I’d be able to get through a day without causing her distress.

Then they moved her to that building.

The dotcom crash happened, I was laid off and now I’m here. I have no idea whatever happened to Janna. I can say, without hesitation, that she hates usability people.

Are We So Mean?

There were many lessons I could learn from that experience What sticks out is that the company had their web development process set up wrong. Had they brought in a usability person way back in the very beginning, when the redesign was hashed out, they would have better understood what to fix, why, how and for who.

The company was showing some thought when they brought in a Human Factors person and put her into the UI department. She was a huge resource for them and myself. She helped us understand how important it was to put the end users first. It used to be a “Stakeholder wants it this way or else” approach, but a site owner tends to want what they like put on a web site rather than what will work, or what will convert, or what their customers feel are their primary tasks.

I know my job as a usability consultant scares people. I do what I do because I love applications that not only function, but are such a pleasure to use you want to go back and do it again. I don’t like telling anyone how to run their business and I don’t like telling them that their raised table cell borders are so 1996, but if their competition has done their homework and built a web site that rocks, they’re getting your money too.

Janna hated me because she felt I was critical of her site. She didn’t understand that I wanted her site to be successful and in demand by the customers it was targeted to.

I was on her side the entire time.


  1. September 25, 2007    

    I completely agree, Kim; the old approach of bringing usability people in at the end of the process left us in a position where all that we could say was “this is why your site sucks”. Nobody wants to hear that, even if it’s true. Unless you move that expertise up the chain to where it can make a difference in product development, usability gets stuck being a forced tap dance to the music of bullets being fired at your feet.

  2. September 25, 2007    

    I’ve always been a big proponent of QA people being involved right at the start of a project. If they’re there through the discovery and requirements gathering phases, it makes test case generation and usability planning so much easier.

    As for how many times in my past life as a developer that happened… I can count them on the… well, let’s just I don’t need any fingers to count them… :(

  3. September 25, 2007    

    Completely agree. If Web site projects like that would involve all of the appropriate resources up front — usability, QA, development, reporting, etc. — they could avoid many of these painful pitfalls.

    There tends to be a perception out there that usability is just prettying up the site so that it looks nicer and more inviting to users. Wrong. Usability is not something you can slap onto the site after it’s been built, like a jacket or a coat of paint. Usability considerations need to be woven in as a fundamental pillar of the design. Otherwise, it’s just fancy make-up on a pig.

    Like with any other product, a Web site is designed to be used. Design it around the user, for the user, all of it. Otherwise, don’t bother, ’cause someone else will.

  4. September 26, 2007    

    Though I’m not talking about formal QA, we’ve got exactly the same kind of problem now. Get a new client, a sites been partially speced up, the designers done some work, the designs have been shown to the clients initially, before us developers have even seen it, and there’s some really questionable stuff in the ‘design’ that the client seems to like…

    It’s not much more than a brochure site, but has a weird concotion of some all flash pages, some HTML pages. So in some areas peoples the back button will work, in others it will break. I reckon that’s even more confusing and annoying than an all Flash site. The response from the deisgner and director? “Oh, I don’t really think people will be using the back button on this web site, it’s not like it’s Facebook or something”.

    And that’s just one issue with the site that’s leaving me a bit dumbstruck.

  5. rAm's Gravatar rAm
    September 27, 2007    

    What concerns me more is that no body is ready to learn. Yes, they faced an issue with usability on their first attempt. But what about the future. They again start from scratch in repeating all the earlier mistakes.

  6. October 7, 2007    

    I think a lot of designers get carried away with implementing flashy designs and forget that users just want a simple, easy-to-use interface. Usability can make or break a site. My experiences working in QA taught me that simpler was better. Most casual browsers aren’t interested in the look of a site so much as they are in the content.

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