28 March 2008

Don't Make Me Think

Steve Krug's book about Web Usability is the primary text for the NED23 class; my copy finally arrived from Amazon today. A little bit of catch-up reading in progress.

According to Krug in Chapter 1 "don't make me think" is the first principle of usability, the reasoning is that every tiny question adds to the cognitive workload, which distracts and detracts from the usability of a site. Another point from the first chapter is that usability issues can erode confidence in the site and publishers.

This is kind of interesting when you look at the web site of usability guru Jakob Nielsen useit.com, which is crammed full of usability studies and reports, haphazard navigation. Certainly doesn't practice what he preaches, yet he is an extremely credible (often criticised "web design guru that web designers love to hate") expert in the field.

The aim, says Krug is to make everything self-evident or at least, self-explanatory. The oft-cited reason for this, that visitors will just go elsewhere if they are sufficiently frustrated, is only sometimes true. The more important reason is to make pages effective, so people can more easily attain their goal in visiting the site.

How does a company like Microsoft view the question of usability? www.microsoft.com. A formal process, approx 900 users per month test Microsoft's products either in their usability lab in Redmond, through online surveys and field visits.
Microsoft usability research focuses on how people interact with software. The information we gather is translated directly into product design improvements..

So the next time I curse at the way Microsoft have designed a piece of software I should remember it has undergone intensive usability study and consider that the problem might just be ME! :p

23 March 2008

Market Research Tutorial

Using market research methods to determine audience need for your web site; what problems will it solve. Collecting information via questionnaires.
Read up on these subjects and try to narrow down some ideas. Try to come up with 3 so there are alternatives you can use. Your tutor will ask you to pitch your ideas for discussion in the first few weeks of the study session, giving you feedback on each.

Search on Google for:
How to do market research
design a questionnaire.

Market Research Methods:
No matter which technique you are using for market research, your goal is to ask a set of questions and get back: A) a set of answers to your questions, and B) new ideas. (Marshall Brain, Howstuffworks, n.d.)
  • Direct market research - talk to people. eg. focus groups, phone, email, face-to-face and online surveys
  • Indirect market research - look at what's already out there

Very informative guide on direct market research in the craft industry, contains principles easily transferred to producing a web site, such as what to include in a market research plan - www.craftsreport.com.

An article with tips and resources for indirect market research www.abc.net.au

My Ideas:
Although I wont be developing the actual web site in this unit, I need to consider ideas that I can take up in future units.
  • A customer support web site for the internet service provider firm I work for - would include things like FAQ, configuration instructions, troubleshooting, account management.
  • An artist's web site - a friend wants my help with her web site, she wants to display and sell her art work online.
  • A free recipe and menu planner web site

I personally enjoy cooking, already have a cooking blog so the third option has a strong appeal for me. I would like to incorporate extra features that would extend the functionality of a simple recipe collection - with search and a menu planner, shopping list. I would probably like to allow user submission of recipes, and in this case some sort of rating system would be desirable.

My audience - Australian (no fahrenheit or US measures please!), aiming at the domestic cook rather than professional chef.

Introduction to usability

Graphic design
- Good usability - obvious, intuitive
- Learning to use something an investment in time/effort, must be considered worthwhile
- Graphic design is about communication - improving usability, motivating the user (Lynch & Horton 2001)

Jon Meads draws a distinction - bad graphic design is bad for usability. Good graphics are effective for drawing attention and enhancing a web site's usability.

Neilsen does not mention graphic design (aesthetics) in his five attributes of usability: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors and satisfaction. Kristiina Karvonen suggests that the satisfaction aspect possibly incorporates aesthetics, and influence trust (2000). (Additional research by Frank Spillers).

Curt Cloninger comments on the "war" between graphic designers and usability experts exacerbated by the different communication styles (aesthetics v. principles) and concludes that both sides benefit from compromise.

Getting Started with Usability Design
- truly great web sites balance aesthetics and usability (Pearrow, M 2000, Web Site Usability Handbook , Charles River Media, Inc., Rockland, Massachusetts.)
- planning, setting objectives for the web site, considering audience/needs
- defining usability objectives for different audiences/situations: minimum required functionality, user/technology constraints, user preferences, habits, dislikes, personal data.
- "usability cycle": ask, test, retest. Impartial testing/judgement.

Ways that Usability is Decreased
- focus on features rather than users
- making wrong assumptions about users (eg. technical ability)
- following technological trends to look "cool", at the expense of usability
- usability a discipline, not just common sense
- lack of usability design knowledge/experience

16 March 2008

What is usability? Some resources

Usability Professionals Association -
Usability is an approach to product development that incorporates direct user feedback throughout the development cycle in order to reduce costs and create products and tools that meet user needs. (n.d)

Has some info about international standards for usability and user-centred design.

Usability.gov - some usability basics, draws from many sources of info, not all referenced but a good overview. The usability lessons learned page is worth a look, some good before and after case studies.

Usability 101 by Jakob Nielsen, the five components that define usability - learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, satisfaction (August 25, 2003). An interview with Jakob Nielsen by Eric Ange of Stone Temple Consulting (September 24, 2007)

Nielsen's "arch nemesis" Jared M. Spool's User Interface Engineering site.

The awesome compilation of usability resources by the University of Minnesota Duluth students/staff. Includes following headings: Benefits and ROI (Why usability?), Children, Chunking, Consistency, Content, Definitions, Efficiency, Error Tolerance, Fitts Law, Flash, Forms, Frames, Homepages, Intuitive, Learnability, Line Length, Link Rot, Liquid/Elastic/Fluid/Fixed Design, Memorability, Open Source Usability, PDF, Pop-Ups (Opening New Windows), Redesign, Scanning/Reading Online, Scent, Scrolling, Security, Senior Citizens, Simplicity, Speed, Splash Pages, Subjective Satisfaction, Teenagers, White Space, Clutter, and Density, Writing, Articles & Related Links (links to usability "gurus" - Neilson, Spool, Friedman/Lennartz, Krug, Horton, McGovern and many others.)

From Smashing Magazine, a good summary of the concepts of usability in this list of 30 Usability issues - rules, principles and definitions. Includes this one I've encountered many times, what a good name for it:
Minesweeping stands for user interactions which aim to identify the links on a web-site. In most cases minesweeping is a clear alarm signal for usability problems. Usually minesweeping involves the user rapidly moving the cursor or pointer over a page, watching to see where the cursor or pointer changes to indicate the presence of a link. [Usability.gov]

Usability Testing
Information and Design - describes the process of usability testing (could be useful for NED23 assessment task). There is a Usability Toolkit with forms and guidelines for testing from Society for Technical Communication's User & Usability pages. Getting into your user's heads with Gorilla Usability, by D. Keith Robinson (Dec 22, 2002).

Usability@90mph: Presenting and evaluating a new, high–speed method for demonstrating user testing in front of an audience by Paul F. Marty and Michael B. Twidale
First Monday, volume 10, number 7 (July 2005)

A usability information site that is undergoing its own usability testing while under development - Usability Body of Knowledge by the Usability Professionals' Association

5 March 2008

Love hate relationship

# Thinking about the ease of use in accessing World Wide Web pages, name ten things you hate most about the Web. How could they be improved?

1. Sites with useless content.
Despite advances in search technology, it is still annoying when a site is listed near the top of search results because it has seo tweaking rather than useful content.

2. Obtrusive advertising.
Pop-up ads are bad enough, even worse are the new ones that slide across the page in front of the article you are trying to read. I always close them straight away without even studying them. What is the purpose there anyway? to attract attention or to deliberately annoy?

3. Pages that play audio automatically.
Particularly the ones that seem to use up a lot of memory and nearly crash your browser. Midis are so old hat they instantly date a site.

4. Java applets.
See above point about using memory and crashing browser (maybe I need to update my computer?). Unless I deliberately want to open a java applet I don't want to be forced to wait for it to finish loading on my screen just so I can browse away.

5. Sucky web page design - horrible colours, imagery, typography.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but some sites are so badly designed that you just want to abandon them at once before your eyes start bleeding.

6. Bad navigation.
Not being able to find your way around a site is just bad, bad, bad.

7. Browser incompatibility.
Amazing how many big banking sites are just getting to grips with the fact there are other browsers besides Internet Explorer.

8. 404 page errors.
How annoying is it when you find reference to a page that seems to be just what you're looking for - and it no longer exists.

9. Links that force page to open in new window.
There is no reason to do this, it is particularly irrelevant when tabbed browsing is a feature of most modern browsers.

10. Excessive use of frames.
Any more than two or three frames is just overkill.

I think most of these things would be improved with greater consideration towards site design, the audience and their purpose for seeking the site. Sites like Internet Archive are a boon as far as preserving valuable content, since there is not much that can be done about web sites dropping off over time. With certain sites (see point 5 above) this is a blessing.

# What are five things you love about the Web? Why? Think of things that make it easy for you to enjoy what you want on the Web.

1. Search engines
Google is my friend. I love being able to find useful reference to any conceivable thing. Search engines have come a long way from years ago, as they endeavour to increase their usefulness and produce relevant results, search technology has really advanced.

2. Virtuality
I love the convenience of a shared platform unbounded by physical barriers. I can be sending off a work submission by email and chatting to a new contact in Ireland while dressed in my pyjamas at 3 o'clock in the morning.

3. Opportunity
The flow and accessibility of information creates so much opportunity for those who want to grasp it - opportunities for learning, employment, social interaction and business.

4. Community
Various factors combine to create a virtual community, it is a fantastic way to share ideas and meet people.

5. Design
The Web is gradually evolving into a more beautiful place, sucky page designs seem to be turning into a thing of the past.

Usability background

What is usability? Three basic definitions:
1. How "easy" something is to use
2. The discipline of building web sites that are "easy" to use
3. The measure of how a user interacts with a product or system

My favourite products are typically labour saving devices like my (new) washing machine, bread making machine, dishwasher. I also prefer my digital camera over my 20y/o SLR, I like my MP3 player and prefer Firefox to any other web browser around at the moment.

All of these things are relevant to my life, they meet a need, I am comfortable using them - in fact most of them I use with very little thought about it. Their usability is a very important factor in my preference for these things, if I had to solve the problem of how to use these products every time I wanted to use them they would lose their usefulness.

With many of the items the brand has very little significance - like my washing machine for instance, I might consider the brand as an indicator of quality and reliability but in the end it comes down to functionality and affordability. With this type of things that perform a specific, simple function I tend to take the usability of the thing for granted.

On the other hand complex things like the particular web browser I use, take time to develop a preference for. Each browser performs the same basic function in the same basic way (eg back/forward buttons); it is the experience-enhancing features which command user preference - and sometimes a fierce loyalty!

3 March 2008

NED23 Usability

Day one and I have just logged into WebCT to see if the unit was up - it was! Already a few posts on the discussion forum, a few familiar names. Just printed off the assessment tasks, looks interesting - for one of them I need to produce a video. I've started adding resource links to del.icio.us, bluetacked my unit timetable to the wall, and ordered my Steve Krug book from Amazon. All set so far.