Wednesday, May 02, 2007
  User-centric design more than usability
Published in NZ Herald May 2, 2007

The craft of making web sites may be maturing, but all too often we will come across sites that don’t work.
The information we are seeking may be hidden on lower pages or missing. The typeface may be too small, the colours clashing, the site just too busy or clever-clever.
Or maybe the site is at odds with what we think we know about the organisation. It strikes the wrong note.
Miriam Walker, the president of Usability Professionals Association New Zealand, says making good sites, and good products in general, is not just about usability, but about things being fit for purpose.
“People see design as not just being where the text goes, where the button goes but understanding the audience, understanding the business needs, and finding a way to address that in one site or product,” Walker says.
“For web sites, it is about having content that is relevant and valuable and presenting it in a way that is findable.”
The UPANZ includes people doing product, industrial and software design as well as web work, but many of the same usability principles apply.
“There are big questions around people’s goals. The focus might be around efficiency and effectiveness, but individuals’ emotional needs and goals also come into play. That’s where attractive visual design and functionality are important.
“A lot of sites, the products have emphasised novelty of things the designer found attractive, rather than meeting the basics.”
Walker says while usability has been a popular issue elsewhere in the world, New Zealand designers were slow to see it as an issue.
Some of the problems were identified by Visual Basic inventor Alan Cooper, who in his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (subtitled Why High-tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity) said software programmers feel driven to pile on the features, creating traps for unwary users.
One of his solutions is the idea of personas, getting designers to consider users’ needs and goals.
Walker says that’s the essence of use-centred design, which she finds a more useful way to work than usability.
“Usability is a micro-problem. You can create something that is easy to use, but no one wants it.”
She says a lot of New Zealand research and development is people building things they want to build in their garages, rather than working out whether people want and need them.
Walker got interested in questions of usability while doing a degree in psychology at Auckland University.
“I was working in a computer lab helping people, and I would see people lose their masters thesis because they did not understand how to save things on the computer,” she says.
That inspired her to get her own masters degree in human computer interaction at the University of California Berkeley, followed by a year of research at Intel in Seattle on how people might use mobile computing, and on what technology support could be given to people caring for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Her current role is as a usability consultant with web shop Shift, which is responsible for Tourism New Zealand’s Webby-winning site as well as the New Zealand Herald’s new online presence.
Walker says by seeing user-centred design as being about more than usability testing, organisations can identify problems before fixing them becomes expensive.
“It is easier to fix things by erasing a pencil mark or rubbing out something on a whiteboard, rather than coming to the end of a project when it will cost you a lot more to make changes,” she says.
People still need to understand that writing for the web is different than writing for other media.
New Zealander Rachel McAlpine has written extensively on this in books like Web Word Wizardry and on her web site
“You have to remember that the number one user is Google,” Walker says.
“You might have written something subtle and entrancing, and it will be lost when the search engine comes looking.”
She’s wary of offering checklists of dos and don’ts for website design. While that may help on a micro level, it may still not answer the question of whether a site is fit for purpose.
There are plenty of such thing available on the web, such as usability guru Jakob Neilsen’s site, which has useful tips and techniques for people trying to solve specific problems.
Walker is a fan of Design of Sites by Douglas Van Duyne, James Landay (one of her teachers at Berkeley) and Jason Hong, which packages a lot of reusable knowledge about site structure and the sort of patterns people respond to online.
The Usability Professionals Association’s Auckland branch holds events on the last Tuesday of the month with speakers who have something to contribute to the development of usable products.
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An online possie for Adam Gifford, a New Zealand journalist specialising in information technology, Maori news and the arts.

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