Back to the Drawing Board

It's time to create Web sites, apps and computers that customers can use

We live in a nation where the winner of the most powerful office in the land may have been decided by a lousy user interface.

So, if typical Americans have trouble choosing the right options on a butterfly ballot — a sheet of paper with four arrows on the left, four arrows on the right and eight holes in the middle — how can they be expected to figure out todays computers, Web sites and portable gadgets?

Computing devices are getting more complicated, not less, as they become more powerful. The World Wide Web has unleashed millions of "interfaces" on unsuspecting users, most created by people with no knowledge of, or training in, usability. And the rush to create even smaller gadgets that perform myriad tasks — like the Web-enabled mobile phone/pager/MP3 player/e-mail center — is adding to the strain felt by users struggling to cope.

From the frustrated consumer who wont buy a complicated mobile device to the office worker whose productivity suffers because he or she cant fathom a computers interface, bad design costs far more money than it would take to do the job right. The number of return visits users make to a Web site — and Web site profits — are tied directly to how easily users can accomplish their business.

Most savings data are anecdotal, according to usability expert Deborah J. Mayhew, but even a simple change can have a profound effect. Slicing just 10 seconds off transaction entry time in a modest-size company could save a department of 20 the equivalent of six months of one employees time.

The frustrations of users and network managers are getting more attention. And that is feeding the development of businesses dedicated to developing more user-friendly systems.

Budding Web site designers, portable device engineers and programmers can read any number of recently published books on how to design systems people can use. A wealth of academic research is available from institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland and the University of California. Gurus like Donald Norman, Jakob Nielsen and Alan Cooper have launched companies to help designers get it right — at a price: Nielsen Norman Group charges $175,000 and more for a full interface or Web site redesign.

Nielsen and his partners are hosting a "world tour" this year, bringing their pitch to Web site designers from New York to Sydney. Their kickoff event in New York last November packed about 500 mostly young programmers, artists and managers into a midtown Manhattan ballroom at $750 for the day; a few days later they attracted more than 200 people in Chicago. In Silicon Valley, Cooper Interaction Design has grown to employ 75 specialists — they like to be called architects — working on designs for everything from Web sites to interfaces for new portable devices.

All the experts agree on basic goals: Devices and interfaces need to be made simpler; the interface or Web site should closely match the task the user wants to accomplish; the brains of the device should work to adapt to the user and the task, not vice versa.

Sounds easy enough, but the experts said they often feel they are swimming against a strong current. Real change wont come without a fundamental change in an industry that gives engineers primacy over designers, and that relegates usability to late-stage testing under tight time limits. No such change is likely, they said, unless users refuse to buy poorly designed products or patronize aggravating Web sites. If not, only a generation raised on badly designed products will be able to figure them out.

"We cannot wait for the entire population to die before we solve the usability problem," Nielsen said.