The term usability has suffered from an image problem that grows worse as time goes on while the demand for the work increases.
For us, there was no way to know in advance what the actual flavor of the neighborhood would be like, or what our relationship to it might be.
Try selling a methodology that has no strict standards conformance, is practiced a million different ways to Sunday, and has no concrete end product other than hope. When a CEO demands to know what possible good a usability audit will provide, the answer is not a sure thing because for starters, the action items have to be completed first.
And there as many of them as there are stars in the sky. Fortunately, there are strategies in place like Agile and Lean, or good old heuristics and cognitive walkthroughs with a dash of user testing. The scope of a usability project always starts with a plan and ends with more plans. Why?
Because a product, website or software application is never finished. It isn’t even about the fast pace of technology and the need to keep up with it to stay ahead of competitors. This is, however, as far as many companies bother to look. The CEO with investors dreams of being ahead of the pack but for most of them, once they come up with a new idea, 10 other top brands have already developed and marketed it. Never forget the dot.com crash.
Every innovation results in changes and consequences that were not expected. Facebook, in its inception, never planned on how it would make a mark in human society because there was no way of knowing how the Facebook experiment would work. It could not be tested before launch. Amazon burst into its own planet by making online purchasing easy for everyone. To do this, they reinvent themselves constantly. I can’t think of any other online business that works so hard to be the place that customers WANT to go first when looking for great deals. They nailed desire. Their website is busy as hell but who cares? They know what we want to buy, what we are willing to pay, and how to create the need to return for more.
This is not usability. It is not customer experience, or conversions or user experience or any of the other terms used to make website that work. This is YOUsability -the ability of a company to know you, your desires, your impulses, your loves, your habits, your devices, your dreams and your needs.
Usability is Not Ability for Everyone
There is no usability methodology that I am aware of that can prepare a company to do business with you, though by golly they do try. They design and test how you react. They create user personas and mental models. They hire user testing with people who may never use your site and get eye tracking and gaze studies to determine where some people look on a page and where they click. They track research and data to make business decisions. They scope out every nook and cranny of a plan that is locked into a business requirements document – an exercise that in reality is more than likely completely ignored. Most companies refuse to pay for any of what I just mentioned. They don’t see the return on this investment.
They don’t see the relationship between what they want to produce and its place among the masses of people they hope will use it. It’s as if you don’t exist but they are making something for some of you anyway. Every company I enter into a contract with has no interest in building a product that everyone can use. It would cost them too much. They narrow it down to:
First time user
Specific user categories like B2B, B2C
These are users.
The usability industry has been attempting to define itself for as long as I can remember (which for me would be 14 years). How do we use one word to define a mish-mish of solutions all attempting to assist with one central problem? Why did we drop the “Email the webmaster” link that existed in website footers in the 1990’s so we could find out what was not working?
You Are Not Part of the Plan
A map does not include unknown possibilities and outcomes.
My husband and I recently moved into a new house in a new development. We bought early, grabbing a prime lot. All we had to look at were house plans and a map of the finished development of 90 homes. One day I asked our saleswoman if she could give me an idea of what our neighbors were like. She was not allowed to divulge that information but said it was diverse and she knew us enough to know we would be happy with the mixture of young families, retired people and those in-between. For us, there was no way to know in advance what the actual flavor of the neighborhood would be like, or what our relationship to it might be.
Your website, software and product are mapped out but your customers don’t know each other. You don’t know them either. They could create something together that you never ever dreamed possible. That companies are not willing to even invest in considering this is contributing to their failure.
Examining the experience beyond the whiteboard is not tangible so it is not considered. For all the hype about being “experience” oriented, the fact is that your experience is unknown and you are out of the loop because you don’t exist. You are a user. A piece of data.
It can cost millions to build a website product that does not work for the people who really need it. Healthcare.gov comes to mind. Clearly, running a successful website is no easy endeavor. There is never enough information to predict the outcome. But a company has to start somewhere and you can tell those that will invest in usability, user experience, customer experience, performance testing, software testing, information architecture, persuasive design, conversions, information architecture, user interface, user personas, user testing, gaze and click tracking, eye tracking, remote testing, focus groups, findability, accessibility, readability, searchability, human factors, and neuroscience vs those what will not spend a dime on anything but marketing strategies.
Convincing stakeholders to invest in usability is like asking them to purchase a who-done-it mystery novel. They are not interested in the adventure of the journey.
We need to find a way to convince them to open the book.
If you know me, you are aware that I have been doing what I call Holistic Usability and SEO since the year 2000. From the moment I combined the two practices, I became a black sheep.
Search engines are all about the user experience. It is, and was, all they could do to discover how we want our information delivered to us. Yahoo! was one of the, if not the first, to implement what later became known as taxonomies, where they focused on organizing content into categories. Their directory listed sites alphabetically, so SEO’s clamored to choose domain names that started with the letter “A”. Yahoo! had a homepage that listed categories to begin searching from and they were called a “portal” site. Others tried to emulate the portal approach to information.
Information architecture and findability, while staples for any search engine and directory, took a back seat in the world of SEO, where the big cool things were keyword stuffing, link farms, reciprocal linking schemes and cloaking.
Google came out with a different way. No portal. Semantic search, understanding the meanings for words used in search queries, personalized search, local search, user behavior, user preferences, user favorites and the demand for accurate, credible content was the new way to gather and deliver information.
Meanwhile, even today, old SEO tactics exist. Google has spent much time and expense to finding ways to clean up the mess and they still do, which to me is fascinating when I know that I, as the black sheep, has been advocating for a search engine optimization approach that does not sacrifice the human experience but rather, supports it as the way to achieving better rank.
While information architecture and findability, organizing information, tagging, meta data and categories are part of what I do as an SEO turned usability analyst, I am not sure if these skills are taught to SEO’s in their conferences and workshops.
I No Longer Pitch SEO Conferences
It has been 3 or 4 years since I pitched to and spoken at a strictly search engine marketing conference. There is only one large conference , PubCon, that welcomes me to discuss web site usability topics to their mostly online marketing attendees. My last talk was standing room only, so clearly there is interest.
There is not enough interest by leading search engine marketing conferences in teaching attendees how to make user friendly websites that search engines value. Yet, to listen to the leaders from the Internet marketing industry describing how they respond to each new Google algorithm update, they nearly always recommend a user friendly website as one of their top methods for success.
Bruce Clay wrote, “The focus needs to be on content—that which provides value to the searcher—and a user-friendly site, meaning the structure and navigation is logical and clear.”
These other tidbits from the leadership folks in the search engine marketing industry too:
“optimize sites for user intent”
“Take eBay for example, they not only had a major issue with repairing website issues.”
“It’s cliche to say: “Focus on the user”, but it’s only cliche because people keep saying it but aren’t doing it.”
“Creating unique site experiences that are focused on high quality user experiences on your site is essential. For many organizations this is a big shift.”
Why is it, I wonder, that the top SEO’s advise making user focused, user friendly websites and yet the top search engine marketing conferences around the world do not encourage usability and user experience design topics? In fact, there are now separate conferences strictly on conversions design, attracting online marketers.
To me, the entire conversions craze is a marketing darling that SEO’s completely missed because the game, for them, is not about design or the user journey. The entire point of their existence was about beating the brains of any search engine by means of math and tricks. Like any game where the objective is to outsmart a pile of machines, this has been and still is, a crazy fun addictive way to make a living.
However, as I figured out 14 years ago, after fighting to get really ugly websites to rank for many years and even being employed to make websites that were forced to take a back seat to users in exchange for better rank, I slept better knowing I could do both. To make it even more fun, I learned accessibility design. It takes money and time, plus the right skills, to build a website for the user journey. Most companies will never invest in a website that is user friendly, accessible and optimized for search engines.
Why should you invest in the user experience?
If you would like to survive any search engine algorithm update, you must build a website that ALL people can use, on any device they choose, using any software they require to assist them and by providing the best content for their search query.
If you want to learn how to do this, request that these topics be presented at your favorite conferences and seminars. Like I said, I no longer pitch and as much as I love speaking at conferences, it is an enormous expense for the company I now work for to send me out.
However, you can hire me to visit your company, or perform a site audit to get your website on the right path. It may be the best business investment you ever make.
Don’t ignore the advice industry leaders are sharing with you.
I like watching people use web sites. Their likes, dislikes, environment, habits, expectations, and abilities to perform online tasks are all unique. Sometimes I think I’ll spend my retirement sitting in a shopping mall doing user testing, for fun.
I was interviewed by the famous Ralph Wilson who has long been dedicated to small businesses. In this video, he wanted to know how a small business can do affordable user testing, how to do it and why it helps.
Once again Facebook has outraged its user base with the result being another round of calls for worldwide boycotts. Listening to users is not a Facebook principle. Run a search on “Facebook boycotts” and you’ll find some going back to 2006.
Clearly, beta testing is not done before rolling out any new functionality or user interface changes. It’s absurd to call Facebook a “social networking” web site when in reality, it is anything but social or community oriented. It’s an advertising medium first and foremost. Its users are pawns.
Last month I wrote about how Facebook removes content without your permission from the “Info” you enter into your personal profile. Essentially, if you have something in your own profile they feel cannot be used to create a Community Page, they won’t permit you to keep your content on their web property. Without any warning, millions of Facebook users signed in to find their profiles were mucked up. Their content had been turned into links. Phrases were turned into links to Community Pages, whether it had any logic to it or not. I removed the phrase, “I’m very proud of her”, from my profile because I didn’t choose to be the owner of a Wiki called “I’m very proud of her”. Because Facebook manipulates our content to be used how they want it, I censored myself.
That we are forced to censor ourselves on a social web site should make everyone stop and think about what this means.
Bloggers and news sites have been writing about privacy issues . Facebook demonstrates a corporate arrogance and an utter refusal to consider the people who use Facebook. One wonders at a business model that is based on revenue generation and yet chases away the traffic at the same time.
Today, you don’t need to be accepted by anyone as a Facebook “friend” to be able to send them messages. This means anybody can be writing to anybody as long as they are Facebook members. Acceptance of “friends” doesn’t matter. Most of your profiles were made public, suddenly and without warning, forcing members to change their settings to limit what the world can read about them. Your “status” content is used god knows where. I see comments from people I know showing up on a CNN feed, as well as folks I don’t know. Why CNN needs Facebook comments is something I don’t yet understand.
Info Head Games
At first, I removed most of the information I had in my profile because I was miffed. Then, I decided to play head games with Facebook by finding ways to work around their programming that forces our words and phrases into links that are then turned into their Community/Wiki pages.
They have added a new process to entering content into your personal profile by suggesting the words they want you to use. So for example, if I wanted to put in “gardening” for my “Interests” it looks like this:
When you choose a word they want you to choose, you’ll know it because you get an avatar from the page it goes to. If you use words or phrases that are not Community Pages/Wikis (yet), you will see the funky triangle in the dull gray box.
When you click on the word “Gardening” next to their image, you are taken to their Community Page. Suddenly you’re about to be introduced to 724,275 (as of this writing) Facebook users you never knew. Try clicking on their profile picture and guess what? Facebook takes you directly to their personal profile page and information that USED TO BE PRIVATE.
I used their drop down suggestions as my clue for what I could put into my Info content that they couldn’t play with (yet). Sentences, for example, work. They are not pretty but you own the content, not Facebook.
For TV shows, my choices are all Community Pages. However, I discovered that if I strung them together and separated the words with commas, Facebook can’t use them.
May 31 is one of the days being called for a global boycott. News reports claim members, including well known people, have already left Facebook in reaction to this user abuse. The entire usability industry can use Facebook as an example of what not to do. So far, nothing seems to be making Facebook budge. All their meetings and feedback from them is not unlike the Three Stooges show we’re being subjected to with regards to the BP oil spill. There’s a severe lack of responsibility and care for human beings in both of these situations.
So, how will you respond to this madness? Have you had enough of Internet privacy abuses by sites like Google and Facebook?