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.
Driven by Technology
Driven by Technology
The fundamental problem, critics said, is that computer systems, devices and software are created for the most part by programmers — mostly male — and driven by technology, rather than designed in advance to help people solve problems. Most companies strive to add as many features as they can, as quickly as they can, and hope consumers will buy them.
“We have been a bunch of guys designing for guys,” said Don Fotsch, vice president of the Internet Appliance Division at 3Com.
It wasnt supposed to be this way.
Starting with some technical developments in the 1960s and landmark work at Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center in the 70s, programmers and engineers created the first generation of computers with graphical user interfaces instead of lines of cryptic commands. Apples Macintosh in 1984 popularized the concept and Microsofts Windows 3 in 1990 made the GUI mainstream. Things seemed to be working in favor of users.
But as feature bloat led to new layers of complexity, users began to complain. That generated a handful of attempts in the 1990s to make a simpler, more understandable interface for home computers. One of the most notorious failures was Microsofts “Bob,” a heavily graphic interface loosely based on research findings by a pair of Stanford University sociologists. It lasted just a year in the market.
“Most of the claims that these things were going to get better and easier to use are lies,” said Cooper, president of Cooper Interaction Design.
Now with “multimedia” computers that not only process words and numbers, but also record and play audio, animation and video, and process photographs, todays personal computer “is too difficult for half the population to use,” Nielsen said. Yet, the same interface is “too weak for power users.”
Caught in the Web
Caught in the Web
The problem is hardly limited to the PC. The Web, design experts said, has multiplied the problem a thousandfold. The browser, developed by researchers to let them plow through the work of colleagues in distant places, became the default tool for all sorts of diverse activities, like e-commerce. Yet, compared to the operating system of a PC, a browser imposes severe limits on programmers and lacks interactivity, critics said.
“The browser we have today is a sort of accidental development,” said Norman, whose book The Psychology of Everyday Things is a design classic. “The browser sets back the user experience 10 years.”
Part of the reason is that the huge demand for Web sites by every conceivable business has meant that tens of thousands of people have become instant Web developers. With almost no rules to guide them and a rush to get something online fast, many developers threw up their best guesses about what would work — and in the process turned users into guinea pigs.
“Its called launch and learn,” Cooper said. “Lets just ship it and see what the reaction is. The reaction is you build a company that pisses people off.”
Amazon.coms Web site is the one most often mentioned by usability experts when asked to name a good, popular commercial site. They point to the organization of information using tabs across the top of the page and a search engine that often returns appropriate results on the first try.
Experts generally give bad marks to sites that make more than passing use of flash animation, which designers often use in an effort to grab users attention. But a high degree of blinking and movement on a Web site not only degrades performance; it can be overwhelming or confusing to users as well, they said. Many users dont bother to look at anything that is moving or flashing on a page — assuming it is an advertisement.
Hard-to-use Web sites can drive customers away — for good, Mayhew said, no matter how much was spent on development. One client came to her after spending $2 million to develop a Web site that usability tests showed would be highly unpopular with potential customers. In another case, she placed a clients proposed Web site in front of a test group of target users — physicians — to find that seven of eight stopped using it after 30 seconds and said they would never go back to the advertising-based site.
The reason the Internet is so popular, experts said, is that it provides users with things they want in spite of the interface, not because of it.
“The tools that are available to develop for it are nowhere near those for creating a multimedia presentation youd put on a PC,” said Steve Krug, author of Dont Make Me Think, a book on Web usability. “The interface has crude elements and the tools give [designers] much less control. But I can put something up there and people in the Ukraine can see it three seconds later. Thats the trade-off.”
Industry appears to be following the same path when it comes to the latest generation of computing devices: portable and wireless.
Most usability experts decry efforts to cram even more functions into ever-smaller devices.
“The display screen is a limiting technology, so are batteries and wireless and GPS [Global Positioning System],” Norman said. But this is not news. For three years, he has been showing a slide that lists those shortcomings “and I expect to show it for two years more.”
Things are made worse, his partner Nielsen, said, when companies try to shoehorn the Web into such multiuse devices.
“WAP stands for Wrong Approach to Portability,” he said. “Studying WAP [Wireless Application Protocol] is like studying the Web in 1994. There are a lot of old-media problems on the new media, except the old media is the Web.”
What designers should do is consider adding voice recognition — when the technology is mature. Most usability experts think voice recognition will eventually become a regular part of many systems.
Designers can also use sensors and other devices to figure out what a user might want and thus narrow the potential tasks and commands the device must deal with at a time. For example, a “smart room” could detect that a user is looking at a wall map when asking a question, and winnow the vocabulary to things that make sense when using a map. That would make voice recognition more accurate, and thus less frustrating to use.
The complaints arent limited to pocket-sized devices, either. Consumer electronics/computer combinations, from set-top box entertainment centers to car stereo/navigation centers, are all growing maddeningly difficult to use, experts said.
“What do you get when you cross a car with a computer?” Cooper said. “Logic dictates you get a smarter car. What you really get is a computer that hurtles down the freeway at 80 miles per hour.”
Those who study the user experience blame a number of practices for the current state of affairs. But in sum, they said, companies most often fail to deliver usability because its hard. The difficulty is multiplied, said Bill MacElroy, president of design firm Modalis, because most interfaces serve two vastly different groups of users: novices who need a great deal of guidance at each step, and experienced users who find the guidance an impediment to efficiency.
If youre too easy to use, then in six to nine months youre obsolete,” he said. “The question . . . is how do you bridge the gap between those groups? The answer is it is very difficult, and so most people dont.”
Wrong People for the
Wrong People for the Job
One of the major problems, according to experts, is that the user experience is almost always left to programmers and engineers, who are driven more by a love affair with technology than empathy with the user.
“In most organizations, the people designing the systems never actually interact with users,” Konstan said.
The result is that engineers and programmers often guess at what their users might want, or assume that users will thrill to the same kind of product the they would.
Plus theres the normal human desire to do something noticeable, rather than something whose design is subsumed by its utility. “You dont win awards for doing things that are conventional,” Krug said. “And if you are a designer, you probably think that youve been hired to do something unusual and original and engaging.”
Yet, history demonstrates that fancy bells and whistles are not required to bring a product accolades — and profits. Some consider VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet, to be one of the classic moments in computer usability, even though it was created on an Apple II that is to current PCs as dinosaurs are to humans. The key to its success: It relieved the tedium of its paper-based counterpart to such a degree that it was single-handedly responsible for introducing the personal computer into the office.
But if the spreadsheet was an early usability success story, it is also perhaps a microcosm of one of the major problems users face: feature creep. Whether in software or portable devices, the industrys mantra is to add features “so you have something new to sell,” said Marti Hearst, an assistant professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley. “And more features usually means harder to use.”
Usability experts like Norman said it is important for designers to stop thinking in terms of creating PC-like devices that cram a multitude of functions into one box. The same kind of thinking, they pointed out, once predicted that each home would sport a single giant electric motor that would power all things mechanical. Instead, designers should create myriad special-purpose devices with limited functions that are easy to comprehend, the way that we now use a plethora of small, specialized electric motors in our washing machines, air conditioners, clocks and disk drives.
“As long as we keep the same form factor and the idea the computer is the thing we do everything on, we cant make any real fundamental changes,” Norman said.
Even complicated devices would benefit greatly from interfaces that can be personalized to the individual. The problem with interacting with computers is that most programs and user interfaces work the same way for everyone. What they ought to do, using the intelligence of the computer, is adapt to what users do most. At a simple level, menus should change to place the functions most often used by a given person at the top of a list; other items might not appear at all because they are never used. So the goal becomes adapting the machine to the user, not the other way around.
Companies often fail to figure that out because of a failure in planning and testing, the experts said.
The painful truth is that planning and testing cost money and take time, two things often in short supply when companies are trying to get a product to market fast. So many companies tend to skip the process, truncate it or put it off until it is time to revise the initial product.
But once a product has reached that stage, its tough to change. For one thing, the people who have worked so hard to get it to what they think is right have trouble accepting the negative opinions of testers.
“It attacks the ego of the people doing the design,” Konstan said.
Experts point to the development of the original Palm handheld as a model for doing things correctly. One of the most important steps taken by its inventor, Jeff Hawkins, was what practitioners call “low-fidelity testing.” Long before his company ever laid out a circuit board or wrote a line of code, Hawkins carved a block of wood into the shape and size of his proposed device. People carried the block to see if they found it unobtrusive to carry.
For software and Web development, the same sort of low-fidelity testing can vastly improve the product; sometimes a simple sketch on paper will do. And, like the block of wood, it is cheap and few egos will be ruffled — on both sides. “If you have a sketch, people are more likely to tell you to make changes,” Hearst said.
Companies and engineers are not the only ones to blame for the problem. Consumers have done their part to make the current mess, Hearst said, because they keep buying badly done products. And that creates a marketplace in which there are few well-executed ones. Cooper calls it “dirty water in the desert” — when youre thirsty, you dont ask a lot of questions about turbidity.
But the dot-com decline and the potential e-commerce market will likely force industry to improve the users experience.
Designers should focus on changing the fundamental way products are created — from whos in charge to when testing is performed to the collaboration among designers, programmers, engineers and marketers. In short, anything but the status quo.
“If you get stuck in the muck of developers developing for developers, you wont get there,” 3Coms Fotsch said.