What makes me dedicate an entire blog post to Einstein.edu's home page usability? The courage that I believe is reflected in the home page layout choices.
"Sorry about this", I was told by an IT manager at a major financial institution, "It's just that our users are lazy and stupid".
Comscore just released a new study last month (June 30 2010) entitled Women on the Web: How Women are Shaping the Internet (download here).
The worldwide study adds some key insights into the growing research on gender differences on the Web and in particular around social networking usage. Why is this a big deal?
Over at Experience Dynamics, we have just released our
brand spanking new User Experience Calendar for 2010! The calendar has a theme
for each month (14 months total) with a short usability meditation providing
inspiration, food for thought and some some important concepts for those
minding the user experience.
This was my general conclusion when working on next generation usability for the popular directory look-up portal whitepages.com website (used by 200 million adults in the US). It doesn't matter what your website does online, if it involves giving consumers information, you are in the privacy business first and foremost. What does this mean?
Obama is already being described as the
Internet President. Will his Internet savvy include an agenda for usability? If so, what might that agenda include? In this post I explore these questions, connect some dots and present some potential solutions for how Obama's technology goals are linked deeply to harnessing usability best practices.
Late in the election season, Silicon Valley expressed its joy that a pro-technology President is back, as witnessed by
Google's CEO promoting Obama in the weeks before the election, as well as
former CEO's of eBay and HP and Microsoft also backing Obama in the run up to the election.
Al Gore was the closest the US has been to a pro-IT cabinet level politician. In 1998, Al Gore had this to say about usability:
"The benefits of usable technology include reduced training costs, limited user risk and enhanced performance ... American industry and government will become even more productive if they take advantage of usability engineering techniques". Vice President Al Gore 1998
While Al Gore promoted usability as Vice President, it is unclear what actions were taken if any. Ironically, it was usability of the voting experience, underscored by voter fraud and the infamous butterfly ballot, that helped get Gore un-elected in 2000. (The Usability Professionals Association made this one of their civic projects).
Not since Al Gore was Vice President did usability receive any attention at the national level. Where are Obama's views on IT and usability engineering? How strong of an agenda will usability play in Obama's IT plans?
Obama: more likely to understand the importance of usability
Obama's weighs heavily on the value of Information Technology (IT) investment and innovation, including staffing the nation's first office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Obama's vision for IT is to invest in it to further social change. This is distinctly different to Bush's IT agenda which seemed to extend only as far as military and Homeland Security.
Obama has demonstrated that he gets technology. His campaign is a major case study in using IT to redefine grassroots canvassing and organizing. His advances in social networking for political gains were underscored by gigantic followings and views on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, FriendFeed, Flickr and others. Obama's age and tech-savvy combined with his recognizing how to use this stage of the Internet's maturity give him an unprecedented quality as tech champion:
Obama's tech-savviness was further underscored by change.gov, a forum for voicing citizen concerns and ideas (like Dell's Idea Storm), set up to help bridge the Nov 4th- Jan 20th gap. The Obama team even migrated their opt-in mailing list when closing down the site on Jan 20th with a permission opt-in and redirect welcome message and blog post from the Director of New Media at the White House. The Obama agenda says Phillips, the new Director, is participation, communication and transparency. The transparency initiative was re-enforced by a memo Obama sent a few days later requiring government agencies to "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public".
President Obama has articulated a strong desire to preserve and support several important issues: Net Neutrality and broadband access to undeserved communities. His IT plan is to bolster social change by harnessing technology and enabling access to the new opportunities afforded by technology. To do this, Obama and his CTO will need to understand and utilize usability engineering best practices.
The Pew study underscores the need for human mastery of technology. Usability is instrumental for social change efforts with technology. Just because you have access does not mean you can use the technology effectively, efficiently, productively, joyfully etc. Usability is an enabler to the goal of empowering humans to use technology.
There are lots of things Obama could do with technology to enhance learning, education and community. For example giving primary schoolchildren laptops (like a project piloted in Northern England in the 1990's) or a neighborhood strengthening online community (piloted in the 1990's in London when I lived in the UK). Alexandra Samuel provides an intriguing list of 50 ways Obama can use the Internet to govern, many of which have already been acted upon by Obama.
But, what should Obama do to ensure that the people getting the technology can use it?
Today we see usability slowly creeping into regulations and standards. For example, the FDA is mandating usability in medical device development; the government is backing standardization of enterprise software architecture (the FEA framework PDF); or that there are a few existing low-profile initiatives for promoting usability best practices as well as encouraging the importance of usability in government website development. A more coordinated and higher profile effort for "humanizing technology" will be needed. Industry understands that usability creates profitability. Having federal backing can help bootstrap organizations, non-profits and businesses who don't have access to usability methods and expertise.
It is vital that the new federal CTO understands and helps promote usability within the new government. It would be tragic to make the classic mistake of 'technology for technology's sake'. The Obama Web team has demonstrated their skill. For the rest of the government and the older Clinton years politicians, there is a need to educate and champion usable IT. Obama's CTO must be familiar with corporate usability lessons and mistakes in deploying buggy, useless, unsatisfying, unintuitive and user-hostile software and web services over the past decade. Usability is a documented science, this needs to be understood.
People have been able to access Obama's message because he has made it so accessible. If this is accidental then good for you! However there is a science behind this and many more non-savvy companies, organizations and non-profits are light years behind the success that has been pioneered with the Obama campaign.
Any initiative or effort to empower the citizenry with technology needs to be tempered with human-centered design (another name for user-centered design) standards and guidelines.
What Apple has been doing with their products is needed at the national level. Take a vision, base it in known usability best practices and make it work passionately. We need stronger regulations, better initiatives and closer ties with government and industry to promote cross-pollination of best practices.
Usability needs to be understood as not just another technical item (as Accessibility has been treated), but the entire purpose of the product. We need new thinking and leadership within our own usability community to communicate this, and likewise we need an executive federal level understanding that usability is a mandatory requirement and approach for technology initiatives.
What types of innovations can be developed by industry and individuals that support the nations goals for social good? Let's do what Bush did with the Homeland Security innovation dollars but make the innovations we fund have a social improvement backbone, instead of a military and security one.
The Obama government should open up technology innovation (Web and product) to social entrepreneurism. For example, for emergency relief, mash-ups created during Hurricane Katrina helped dislocated persons find shelter...or for health, for example, the Wii Fit is a technology with tangible health benefits (or so I'm told) ;-).
To start, having a conversation about how to get technology to work for the people it's destined for is the first step. It's great we can have this conversation! I would love to hear your thoughts, comments.
Frank Spillers, MS p.s. Issues with Typepad have caused a re-write of some of these paragraphs. So I will call out an interesting news item about Obama's staff digging the White House Out of the Dark Ages for starters (hat tip to Matt Schoolfield).
Frank Spillers, MS
p.s. Issues with Typepad have caused a re-write of some of these paragraphs. So I will call out an interesting news item about Obama's staff digging the White House Out of the Dark Ages for starters (hat tip to Matt Schoolfield).
User advocacy is one of the central goals of usability. User advocacy can be defined as the process an IT professional (with an interest in user experience) goes through in re-sensitizing herself to the world of the "average user".
So. why do we forget about the "average user" so fast?
We all were average users at one point. We still are when it comes to working with a new program, product or website. The difference between us (IT professionals) and the average user is that we have learned sophisticated coping strategies for figuring out software and the web.
Average users don't care how a program works anymore than you care about how a radio transmits signal while you listen to it or how plants metabolize sunshine to remain green when you look at them.
Average users don't stop to think about how the programmer may have designed a system, how the database is working (as they wait for the round-trip of data back to user interface) or what an icon or screen behavior means. The average user doesn't know, doesn't want to know and has expectations that technology will work "as advertised" and "as expected".
Defining the "average user"
The "average user test" (can be performed on any family member that often asks you for help with technology).
1. Ask the person to open an attachment, edit it and then send it back to you. (Average users don't understand that this requires selecting a non-system file area of your hard-drive first; saving it and then replying with the document as an attachment).
2. Ask the person to take a picture (with a digital camera). Depending on the usability of the hardware manufacturer, the user might fail to get past transferring the images to the computer. If they figure this out, where they store images on the computer may be the show-stopper (Average users don't understand that a custom location needs to be defined and a novel name needs to be given to this "set of photos").
3. Ask the person to reduce the size or lighten the image and send it to you. Image editing is not layperson-friendly. The Mac OS 10 makes this a little easier than Windows XP but the average user is not using a Mac generally, so we're talking Windows XP. Also the average user is not installing all sorts of photo editing programs to find the "best one". By chance they have installed what was provided with the camera, the printer, or something a friend or relative gave them- or all three. The average user did not install the software on their system with volition.
Rules for playing nicely with your "Average User"
or the Alternative User's Bill of Rights (as originally proposed by IBM's Dr. Clare-Marie Karat)
1. Interaction with system level functions ain't going to happen. This means set-up, installation and all other "Out of Box Experience" (OOBE) aspects need to be considered carefully for average users. Decisions about what and how much of the "back end" administrator functions need to be made with caution. Where possible shelter the average user from "Preferences, Settings, Options" or at least centralize access to and from this area.
2. Customization and personalization behaviors are limited. Instead study default behaviors and spend time getting default functions right (this can not be over-emphasized).
3. Configuration is your average user's worst nightmare. See my article "Configuration Hell- The Case for the Plug and Play User Experience"
4. Anything not apparent, transparent, obvious, intuitive and explained may be problematic. Anything requiring understanding is not intuitive. Intuitive means it does not require understanding.
To simulate the cognition of the "average user" consume one alcoholic beverage and then try to focus on work (if you don't drink, sit at your desk for four hours straight and then try focusing on a new task). That state of distraction, de-focusing and inhibited response is close to how the average user processes your design. Conduct a usability test using the "think aloud protocol" and you'll quickly realize how true (and I hope, funny) this is!
5. Get sober about your technology- on purpose. It's easy to get pulled into the cool value of a technology, harder as a designer to step back and see the bigger business picture or user needs (gained from real observed user behavior). Usability and user advocacy techniques are not designed to under-value technology, but rather to make technology or specifically user interfaces -subordinate to user interests. User-centered designs historically have out-performed system-centered design.
6. Ignoring the average user can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies. I often hear product managers say "our users are power users" or "if they don't get this, they are not our users". These assumptions are largely self-preserving and seem to counter the usability attitude of "user advocacy". Promote a culture within your team of "Outside-In" design. Stop defending the merits of features and functionality without some independent outside verification from your users.
Remember user advocacy is as much realizing how technology or system-centric your own professional attitudes or behaviours are as much as those of your users.
Frank Spillers, MS
You know the drill: You download or install a new piece of software or open a new piece of technology (e.g. PDA, mobile phone, laptop) and you have to "configure it" to get something to work or work the way you want it to...
Summary: Users are not usually successful at configuring software, websites or devices and the configuration experience can be a major source of frustration. Instead we need to move toward a world where everything is auto-configured and user experiences are "plug and play".
Defining Configuration: I refer to configuration in it's broadest sense: A user must perform some advanced action in order to get some desired result from software, a web site or a product experience. Typically the term configuration means to adjust or change settings- hiding, activating or altering useful features and system behaviors.
Basic Examples: You want to change your desktop picture?- You need to find that right click menu and select your new choice. You want to use flash on your digital camera at night?- You have to scroll through the menus and select that option- (don't forget to turn it off!) You want to re-connect to a new wi-fi (wireless) network or a secure network, you need to view available networks, choose one or add an encrypted key. Need to watch a video online?- You need to know your connection speed and choose your player.
Note: If these examples are no-brainer tasks for you, then you are probably deep in the forest of configuration and configuration is second nature to you. This article explains why you might not be able to relate to why configuration is such a major usability issue for average users (Average users = people who don't work with computers for a living).
Symptoms of "Configuration Hell"
1. On the web. A shopping cart is a type of configuration experience. When you remove an item and forget to update the cart, your cart will be inaccurate. Playing with a poor shopping cart is a symptom of configuration hell. Navigation usability issues can be seen as a type of configuration SNAFU in the sense that users are trying to steer a website in a particular direction to serve up the desired pages or functionality.
Changing an interface from current state to desired state is the basic unit of the task of configuration.
2. Updating Your Account. Amazon's lousy Account Management user experience (which never seems to get any better) is another example. Ever notice how hard it has been over the years to get information on an order at Amazon? So difficult, they put an "animated demo" of the Account section in there to "help" (see this article about how Help, Never Does).
3. Mobile Devices. Tried setting up email on your mobile phone (smartphone or PDA) lately? It can be a total nightmare depending on your phone brand/model.
4. Operating Systems. No finer example. The entire Operating System user experience (Windows, Mac and Linux) is a big configuration love fest. Installation and in particular driver installation are artifacts of the legacy of software configuration (Yes, configuration for end-users is part of the past, and not part of the future, I believe. The big shift in Windows came with auto-detection of Media devices and Wireless networks in Windows XP in 2001). Ever tried going online with a Windows 2000 laptop and your wireless card? It will boil your blood.
Lindows has tried to address the OS software installation experience (an aspect of configuration) with near instant installation of the entire Operating System ("seven minutes" in a recent Extreme Tech review). Another innovation is the streamlining of software installation for the OS with the Click-N-Run functionality (same review next page):
"Click-N-Run - slick, slick, slick!
One of the most annoying things for newbies about installing software in Linux is that most apps don't even give you an icon to click to start them after installation - and it's hard to find those applications in the first place. Experienced Linux users know where to go, and can easily create their own icons, or use the command prompt to start new applications. But Linux newbies aren't used to that and sometimes can't figure out how to find or easily start the application they just installed.
[FS: It's not just a Linux phenomenon! If you need evidence of this, visit a relative and ask them if they are using their printers/scanners/digital cameras etc. You're sure to find issues with driver installation or configuration literacy.]
Thus Lindows has a Click-N-Run feature that makes it simple to find a new application, then download, install and run that application. It all happens with a simple click of the mouse. We've got to give the Lindows people credit; Click-N-Run is well designed and easy to use. It's pretty much a no-brainer to navigate the Click-N-Run store to choose software. And after installation Click-N-Run gives you the option of starting the software, adding a link to it on your desktop or adding it to Auto-start. While this might seem like an unimportant detail - it's not. In fact it's very important".
The Mac has a similar function with regard to installation where .exe files (or .dmg files as they are called) are sometimes drag-able to the Applications folder causing them to be instantly "installed".
5. Browsers. Managed your cookies or Java settings lately? Okay, how about 5 years ago? Spyware these days has more people clearing cookies and cache files- but remember how your co-workers didn't even know how to do that a few years back?
Configuration usability issues leave a trail behind: see this user's helpful tips. The Firefox browser made some leaps and bounds with "browser switching", a technique borrowed from a new trend in banking- the "we'll help you defect" switch kit...
When installing Firefox, it pulls all your Internet Explorer settings over, including bookmarks and cookies to the browser. It's fairly slick and worth noting. The Firefox folks at Mozilla also seem to be aware (article: Realities of Users) of the truths inherent in this posting you are reading now ;-)
6. Blogging software. (Typepad, Moveable Type). Need to show your bio? Add an XML feed? Change your design template? All configuration tasks. Typepad has won an award for making it easier, but still managing these important configuration settings can be a little confusing.
7. Search Engines. Google eliminated the search configuration paradigm, removing the need for users to pre-select the Boolean filters AND/OR/NOT (drop-down menus and radio buttons). Simplicity of search interface was a raging battle at search engine companies for years until Google cleared the noise. However, many website search interfaces are obssesed with letting user's fail with Boolean filtering. (See this related post on Site Search usability for more detail).
8. The List is Endless: Home Theater Systems, Camcorders, Cameras, Web Analytics software, Content Management Systems, Email Marketing Software, Document Management Systems, Spyware Remover software, Firewall software, Anti-Virus software, Instant Messaging Clients, Telematics (Automotive) systems...the list goes on...
Towards Universal Configuration in Design
Why do we have configuration in the first place? The configuration mentality comes to us by way of legacy computer systems and legacy engineering-centered designs.
Configuration is the design decision that says:
- "We don't know what the perfect default should really be".
- "We want to let our users be the final judge".
- "Users can go into these advanced settings to change things".
- "To begin with or to add additional power to the functionality- configuration must occur".
I believe that user experiences that force configuration will become unpopular over time. Rather than exposing users to DIY interface engineering, we need to give them transparency, seamlessness, elegance. Your users should walk up to it and synch! Your users should open it up and be greeted warmly before being transported to their destination. Your system should auto-detect, auto-configure, auto-respond, auto-heal.
Don't let your users play with your brilliance, just let them experience the value they seek.
Why is universal configuration imperative? It relates to appropriately using the interaction design technique of progressive disclosure and also the importance of selecting defaults carefully (the topic of a future post).
Also there is the reality of user behavior. Here's how non-technical users relate to configuration:
1. "Stop it, I don't want to Configure Anything!"
2. "What is configuration?"
3. "Why do I have to configure it?"
4. "What is the best way to configure it?"
5. "What is the fastest way to configure it?"
6. "I didn't know I had to do that".
7. "Why isn't it already set up for me?"
Rather than giving users the bitter taste of choosing options and making
choices about display views, system settings and feature access-- many
manufacturers and application developers are giving users a plug and play user
experience. I recently purchased a Toshiba notebook that boasted hasstle-Free
Connectivity on the outside box.
I need to tell you, my expectations were racing- was I about to be embraced by a flesh and blood example of what I call Universal Configuration (auto-configuration everywhere on every thing)? No! The Toshiba laptop was not config-free. It had more configuration gymnastics associated with it than any other laptop I have set up in the last five years. It's problems started with the never mentioned and unique hard key wireless lock switch (defaulted to "lock" or wireless "off" mode). To simply go online with Windows XP, I had to involve technical support and it took several hours of trouble-shooting!
Bottom line: We need the mentality of Universal Plug and Play and Universal Configuration in design and development, period. You should open a new laptop in the future and have simultaneous config-free access to wireless, ethernet LAN and dial-up connectivity without any need to manually configure. Windows XP wireless network auto-detection and configuration is a great leap forward. However, have you ever tried configuring a dial-up connection from a hotel lately? If you haven't done it in a while, be prepared for a "configuration hell" experience.
Frank Spillers, MS