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Web Site Usability Developers Have No Idea What They’re Doing

I’ve been tracking recent news and following discussions pertaining to web site planning, user experience design, and usability testing that are good reminders that there’s no such thing as a cozy, orderly, agreed upon approach to any of those things. Not only this, there are grumblings about why user centered design is probable at all.

Pure Baloney

Conglomerate Tests? offers one man’s opinions that usability testing is a crap shoot.

To his way of thinking, the only way to get accurate results in user testing is to test everybody, not 5, 10, 20, or 100 people. User personas are a joke. Methodology is too, because usability testing is performed in various ways. He feels there is no way we can justify a set of usability guidelines for such a gigantic vast of user circumstances.

He writes,

Well… the question remains… why aren’t we, as a body of businesses, not getting together to carry out an independent set of survey’s and test cases and sharing the results? How about it?

A whole bunch of tests devised to handle the numerous color usage, text size, screen resolution, ages, readability, scroll-size, font-faces, preferred navigation, location of XYZ, wording of ABC etc. We could punch huge wholes in numerous “common beliefs” or provide data to reinforce them.

I wrote,

It’s not a matter of throwing together a bunch of test plans and creating guidelines on a wide cross section of users because each site being tested has its own business and functional requirements. What is desired for one type of site or application is not desired for another.

This is why test plans and test cases are based on requirements gathering.

He didn’t want to consider that. He’d like a wide angle lens focused on a planet sized set of web site users that will give us precisely the kind of information we need to make web sites that work for everyone, because everybody has been asked what they want.

Would this work? Several days later, he holds onto this idea and believes it to be so.

Who Cares What They Need?

Cre8asiteforums has had an ongoing discussion of interest called Site Aesthetics Vs. Customer Involvement: How perceived risk relates to usability. Today, someone wrote about a situation many of you are familiar with.

When an executive gets a bug in their ear to make a pretty picture, it’s hard to derail that movement with logic or experimentation. It’s like a drug. All reason gets lost. You’ll spend your food budget even as you starve.

The analytics guy/gal are a threat to their idea. Nobody wants to hear things like “analytics are the voice of customers.” Analytics are boring. Testing is for propeller heads. Go away while I look at my design.

Even when broken down in a simple, side-by-side chart showing before/after effects, I’ve seen “marketing vps” say something like “but the staff likes this one better” – as if that should be the end of the story.

In a conference call I was on yesterday, I guided the company president into considerations for potential customers that went beyond what he or his team may have been considering. I wanted to be sure they weren’t approaching a redesign with rose colored lenses.

Though intelligent enough to get usability consulting to make sure they are being objective, I know they’ll have to do ongoing testing. They’re redesigning because they face a fierce competitor. To increase their conversions and perform better in search engine results means combining what they presently know about their customers and adapting to changing customers’ needs.

The one thing we can always count on is that people change their minds. What they wouldn’t or couldn’t tolerate a few months ago on the Internet may not be an issue anymore. User habits change too. Something as simple as how we look for things on web pages changes as we learn and unlearn browsing habits.

Do We Really Know What We Think We Know?

From the site aesthetics discussion someone felt:

Evidence doesn’t matter when the politics of power is all that matters. The only evidence that matters in such situations is the number of times the decision maker can say “black is white” and have others agree — whatever the consequence for the long term viability of the business.

In such cultures the only customer experience is “the willing suspension of disbelief” a.k.a the reality distortion field. My experience is that computers are great primary enablers of reality distortion fields.

Indeed, there are those who aren’t satisfied to accept the current reality of user centered, human oriented design and what we think we know so far. HFI’s Chief Scientist, Kath Straub, PhD, CUA, wrote in Meta-Usability: When the method is not the message:

Practitioners want research to solve a problem, or justify a specific design or business decision.

The paper’s theme looks at the difference between what researchers study and what practitioners want, as well as what practitioners present and what clients want to hear.

Is it all for nothing? Don Norman’s latest thoughts on innovation and product development, Filling Much Needed Holes, didn’t beat around the bush.

Ethnographic research is fun. You get to go out into the world and watch, take pictures, satisfy your curiosity and inherent nosiness. Back at the office it is great fun to scribble notes, to post them on walls and rearrange them to form patterns. Then we can create personas, colorful little artificial people with cute, interesting lives, or maybe overstressed, over-busy lives. We delight at personas, at prototyping, at watching people go through their paces. New products galore. Innovation is the new hot topic. But does all of this activity lead to actual success in the marketplace? I fear not.

Is there something in the air?

We Always Want What We Can’t Have

And usability people will make sure we give it to you.

For search engine marketers, the year has been difficult due to search engines cracking down on what they’ll accept, whether it be web pages or web links. There are new rules for SEO’s and web designers to follow. Add to this increasing demands by site users with specific needs, disabled persons and accessibility laws and standards. Web site competition for conversions, brand, rank and reputation is pushing user experience design and usability practices into the web site planning playbook.

Social networking is connecting people in new ways and the lessons are coming in fast and furious. Facebook, for example, discovered user testing can come in the form of petitions when they launch something members can’t stand.

Despite everything, there are more and more groups branching off and doing their thing because they see where they fit and where they can help. Organizations continue to pop up, like The Interaction Design Association, whose purpose is “user experience design that defines the structure and behavior of interactive products and services.”

It isn’t so much that designers and developers have no idea what they’re doing. It’s more like there’s so many people involved in the creation and usage of something that global satisfaction or acceptance may never be possible. Nevertheless, there will always be those driven to achieve the Wow factor. Nothing intends on sitting still.

And neither will the growth of usability oriented design.

1 Comment

  1. December 12, 2007    

    I’m glad it’s not just me; I swear there’s been a battle recently between people announcing that usability/testing/etc. are crap and usability people telling us why everything outside their particular niche is crap. Are you and I the only well-rounded usability practicioners on the planet, Kim? :) Can’t we all just get along?

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