With the upcoming death of Clippy, the happy, animated paper clip in Microsoft Office that helped a few and annoyed millions, usability issues are on my mind again. Coming up with tools that help novices use a product or a Web site without becoming a needless bother to most other users is an extremely difficult task. Just how difficult became clear when I attended a session on Web site navigation at the Tenth World Wide Web Conference held earlier this month in Hong Kong.
The presentation was given by Steven Pemberton, of the U-Wish project at the CWI research center in the Netherlands. One of the projects goals is to improve the usability of Web pages, especially for older users.
As part of the project, a series of tests were conducted using young and old user groups. In the tests, users accessed Web sites with no usability aids, with landmarks showing if they had moved from a site, with a map that showed where they had been in the site, with an agent that suggested content they could see on the site and with a software assistant that combined all of these aids.
Pemberton said that usability for older users increased greatly with the combined assistant. But what was interesting to me was that usability for younger users increased with the map but began to decrease with the use of agents and the assistant (although it was still higher with either of these than with no aids).
In this test, the younger group consisted primarily of experienced users who were comfortable with technology and the Net, and the older users were the novices. And this shows the Catch-22 of coming up with usability assistants: The experienced users liked the feedback provided by the map but began to be annoyed by the more intrusive agents and assistants, while the novices were happy with all the help they could get.
So the question for developers is, do you build in lots of usability aids to help the novices and not worry about annoying the skilled users, or do you go with a more minimal approach that isnt as helpful for the newbies?
Its a tough choice. Helping novices could increase your user base by cutting down the barriers of complexity. But experienced users are probably your more dedicated customers, and you dont want to alienate them.
One thing is certain: If you cant implement a usability aid that strikes the right balance, it is probably destined to join Clippy, Bob, Merlin and all the rest on the scrap heap of software design.