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Rage Against the Machine
by John S.
Usability is about psychological research, data collection, and data
analysis. It is not really about design, or marketing, or programming.
Unfortunately, you need to be wary of companies that claim they do usability
because many do not interact with users at all, and many do not do any
research. Pay close attention to your business problems and when you are
seeking out usability help, talk in detail about how the research is going
to be conducted.
Houston, We Have a
Recently there has
been a substantial increase in the amount of noise filling the usability
space. The definition of usability is being perverted. "Usability"
is being thrown around like a rag doll and folks are really getting confused.
My email inbox is full of questions that are the result of poorly defined
representations of usability. The
media is getting confused and so are many companies. Worse still, many of the
wrong people seem to be saying
the right things and many of the right people are saying the wrong things.
There is too much ambiguity.
So, I'm going to step
up to the plate and take a big swing. Hang in there! I'm going to try to nail
usability means. I'm sure that many people will not agree
with me, but I don't care. (For my own sake, I want to give you a definition.)
The systematic application of psychological research
methods to activities carried out by humans with technology. The core focus
is on understanding the core challenges and successes that users have with
technology. The result of the research is a data set that can be used
to improve the experience that users have with the technology.
As you can tell, the focus is on data and research. Usability should be
about understanding people and technology through rigorous psychological
research. It is true that usability is both an art and a science, but there
is not a balance. Usability should be about numbers and charts
and user comments. It should be about understanding people through
observation and data collection. Let's face it, if you were interested in
anything but user data you'd be better off asking your friends and relatives
what they thought. You'd be off gathering random opinions, you would let
your creative juices flow creative, and you would trust your designers,
project managers, and executives to build your technology.
But, that just doesn't work. (Think about the dot com
failures. Yikes!) You have to understand your users and customers. You have
to do research. There is no magical formula, this is the reality.
I admit that much of what I talk about on Webword does not
fit my definition of usability. I do talk about creativity, art, marketing,
information architecture, and a whole lot more. I deviate from my own
definition of usability all of the time. However, and this is crucial, when
we are working with a client, we do everything we can to stay on target. My team
designs experiments, we gather data, we analyze data, and we write reports
about how users interact with web sites. We focus on psychological
research as it can be applied to users and technology.
In general we stay away from design and we stay away from marketing. This
doesn't mean that we don't understand these other areas and it doesn't mean
we can't add value. And, it doesn't mean we don't interact with some really
sharp and creative designers. I'm only trying to stress that we don't say we
do usability and then run off and design web sites.
That isn't right.
Why Data? Why Research?
Pay close attention to the following points. Usability is a small
field. There are not very many people that have legitimate usability
research skills. Usability is a science more than most people realize and
when done right, it is difficult. I would argue that the core strength of usability is the very fact
that it is empirical.
Developers generally do not understand how to conduct research
that will truly capture how people use technology. Designers design.
Developers code. Usability professionals conduct research, and they tend to
suck at design. (It's true, most of us are way too conservative and we tend
to lack creative zest!) I want to make this important point again: Usability professionals
should not design your web site. That is not their role.
Aside: Are you having a hard time convincing your
managers about this? Have them read this article or have them contact
me. I'll explain exactly why usability professionals are not
is not design.
Usability is hard. Usability
research is intense and requires a constant focus on other people. And it
isn't just watching people. It is watching people with a purpose and it is
gathering the right data about their activities. And, well, it is a whole
lot more. It also
requires an understanding of research principles and data analysis. Many
people think it is dreadfully boring since it requires hours of
analysis. You have to love people and data to love usability.
Aside: If you are getting help from a usability
researcher or research team, be sure that you are
getting data. If you get opinions, that is fine, as long as they are backed
up with some research. And, be sure that the data is answering your
questions or you will be wasting your time and money.
Data is important because it reflects reality better
than just about anything else. Opinions, creativity, and art are expressions. While
they might please people, they don't reflect how people act in the same way
as data from usability tests. This is the
same reason why surveys and focus groups
fail. Surveys and focus groups only
capture what people say and think. They do not capture how people act. This
is critically important for most web sites. For example, let us say that
people tell a company that they love web sites that use many fonts because
that is cool. If you design based on these comments, you could be in for a
disaster. Why? Well, a usability test might reveal that reading speed is reduced by 35%
because of the variability in the fonts. Further, when the reading speed is
reduced, that usability test might reveal that users are less likely to buy a
certain high margin product. The moral of this example is that a survey or focus group
will very likely give
you the wrong data.
Good usability researchers understand what tests are
appropriate. They will hunt down the right questions and the right
research techniques to address those questions. Ultimately, the researchers
will provide the right data to help you improve your web site for your
Get the research religion.
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