Usability in 2002

10th January 2002

User Vision predicts how the rapidly evolving world of the web will impact the end user and the usability profession in 2002.

The web is an area where the only thing you can be certain of is change. In the past few years the changes in interface and interaction design have occurred so rapidly that most sites built 3 or 4 years ago look outdated today. There is constant innovation in design practices as well as web technology, and often the success of these innovations rests entirely on how well people can learn them and see their benefits. Because easy interaction between users and their technology is so critical to success of the web and e-commerce, it is worth looking at trends in web design practices & technologies as well as the evolving usability field itself.

The technologies

Some technologies released during the end of 2001 will start to have an impact this year. The highest profile IT event last year was the release of the new Windows XP operating system from Microsoft. This aims to benefit users through greater reliability and interconnectivity with peripheral digital media devices. It also includes the default browser Internet Explorer 6 which has only incremental improvements, mainly for image and cookie management, security and customisation. IE6 does not include controversial SmartTags (embedded links to Microsoft-approved online services that the browser adds to the normal content). Microsoft apparently heeded the outcry from web users fearing Smart Tags would result in the software giant directly influencing what we see on the web.

There are various interface improvements in XP, but the most significant user experience gain is ClearType, which will be familiar to users of Microsoft’s PocketPC operating system. This is a form of anti-aliasing that works by addressing sub-pixels and calculating which should be dithered on or off. The result is crisp, non-pixellated text that’s easier on the eye for prolonged reading and increases reading performance by 10–20%.

showing the term XP Professional at various reading perormance levels

ClearType anti-aliasing up close. From a distance this dithering makes text on computers easier and faster to read.

The other major news from the Microsoft stable is .NET. Based on the Microsoft .NET Passport user-authentication system, .NET is an XML-based Web service that allows previously disconnected applications, devices, and services to work together. Functions in .NET allow greater customisation, personalization, and security control – if used properly. Microsoft is surely aware that success of .NET will rely at least as much on the usability of its interfaces as the promotion of this new service.

Eagerly awaited broadband will continue to be deployed in 2002 – slowly and not as cheaply as everyone would like. A recent UK online report showed that 60 to 65 percent of the UK population is now covered by ‘affordable’ broadband, yet less than 1% of UK households had rented broadband cable lines. Despite the potential user experience benefits such as streaming media, it is far too early for websites to compensate for the broader bandwidth by using larger file sizes, unless the individual users specifically requests them. Certainly for the next few years it will be wise to cater for the lower end of the bandwidth range.

Also, there will be improved use of Macromedia Flash on the web. More web developers will mature from making site intro animations to applying Flash’s potential for real time data manipulation and presenting chronological information, such as demonstrations, in an intuitive way. Through its sensible application, Flash should start to shake off its reputation for being unusable, and more users will become comfortable with its interaction style.

The usability field

The benefits of usability will continue to be recognised by businesses with an online channel. If anything, the downturn in technology funding has increased attention on the importance of getting a return on investment from web sites. E-commerce managers will increasingly seek proof that their web, interactive  television and WAP sites provide a rewarding experience for their users and good return on investment. As a result, usability testing will start to become a standard practice for medium to large projects. The requirement will be driven from the business stakeholders rather than the technical or design managers who often dictate the actions in a web site development.

Web accessibility will continue to be a cause attracting many converts. Whether driven by a sense of social responsibility or fear of being sued, more companies and public services will make accessibility a requirement for their site development, and this may pave the way for them to address the issue of usability as well.

One of the challenges for the field will be how to conduct usability tests across a multiple device networks in the coming world powered by broadband and XML. There will be scenarios of people responding to an advertisement on their digital TV, from which they provide or request data to be handled by their mobile phone (voice or SMS), PDA and web channels. A positive, consistent user experience across multiple channels referencing the same data and metadata will be essential for users to take advantage of these networks. Usability testing in this environment will be more capital intensive and certainly more challenging.

Finally, the strong business case for usability improving e-commerce revenues, and increased general knowledge of the field means that more web service providers will jump on the usability bandwagon in 2002. The same people that two years ago were advising that your site needs a Flash introduction or streaming media elements may now be offering to ‘do usability’ for your web site. As in all areas of professional services, it is important to check the credibility and past experience of the providers. It will be particularly important to distinguish between those that offer traditional market research services, such as online surveys and focus groups, from those that provide user-centred design methodologies and empirical evidence through usability testing.

With the rapid pace of technological change, 2002 will surely introduce many other innovations that will have a critical human interface element. However, among all these changes one constant rule will remain – those that have been developed and tested with the end user firmly in mind are far more likely to succeed.

Chris Rourke

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

We have worked with User Vision since 2004 on improving the Careers Scotland web offering. Our new website represents the culmination of three years of hard work to improve the usability and accessibility of the site and ensure it is truly customer focussed. The results of the recent survey indicate that this hard work has produced significant results for Careers Scotland and much of this is due to putting in place the improvements recommended by User Vision.

Web Manager, Careers Scotland.