Hiding behind the user

The preoccupation with usability in web design is a cop-out.

Ben Eliot

Topics Politics

In 2002, it seems almost retro to recall the days of the dotcom boom.

But when I heard that business and technology analyst Gartner Group has advised chief information officers to treat 2002 as a ‘gap year’ for IT spending (1), I remembered an email I received in 1999 from a British dotcom millionaire, signed off with a quote from Hunter S Thompson: ‘Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.’ That particular dotcom millionaire now works for a charity, but for me he still epitomises that period – now diagnosed by Alan Greenspan as a case of irrational exuberance – when it was popularly believed that technology could change the world.

Gap year or not, one area of the technology industry set to grow in 2002 is web usability – a surefire antidote to the technology-as-rock-and-roll excesses of the late 1990s. This year, be prepared for growing angst over whether your website is accessible to all, whether your hyperlinks are underlined, and whether your search button is clearly labelled.

For those unfamiliar with web usability – or the usability movement, as the foremost usability exponent Jakob Nielsen likes to refer to it (2) – here’s a brief definition. Usability is a measure of how effectively a product allows a user to achieve the task the product is designed for. If the product is a television remote control, then its usability is measured by how easily the viewer is able to change channels, adjust the volume and so forth on his television set. Web usability is, by extension, the practice of assessing the usability of a website. To quote the back cover of Nielsen’s seminal Designing Web Usability, ‘web usability is the practice of simplicity’ (3).

At the User Experience 2001/2002 conference (4), Nielsen presented estimates that the growth in expenditure on usability for web-based projects had grown from four to five percent in 1993, to eight percent today. The rise of usability coincides with a gradual evolution in the way that web-based projects are run, and is to some extent inevitable as web development moves from cottage industry to software engineering. However, it is worth noting that the growing prominence of usability coincides with a stagnation in IT spending more broadly.

Investment bank Merrill Lynch predicts meagre growth in company IT spending in Europe and the USA (four percent and two percent, respectively), and the possibility of a return to double figures way off in 2003, if we are lucky. In a joint study, UK IT industry paper Computer Weekly and Kew Associates believe even that to be too optimistic – they found growth in UK IT spending at its lowest level since 1993 and predicted that growth for 2002 would be lower still. According to Computer Weekly, among the top spending priorities for 2002 will be security and disaster recovery (5) – which hardly suggests irrational exuberance.

As nervous companies scale down their ambitious plans for e-CRM, m-commerce and other such things, the practice of simplicity seems like the perfect antidote to what those dotcom days are now understood to have been about – rapid unfettered change, information overload, utopian ambitions and superficial hype.

It’s not difficult to see the attraction of usability. The subject touches upon many of today’s business concerns, and usability’s rise from obscurity is a result of the constraints under which the technologies of the web, and the internet more broadly, are developing.

At a time of stagnant or falling investment in IT, focusing on the basics is a natural option. Many organisations are failing to demonstrate a return on investment on more ambitious projects, so the promise of a quick win gained by moving the company logo to the top-left hand corner of a web page is quite appealing.

Changing the labelling of your search facility may seem like a less daunting challenge than successfully implementing personalisation on your website – especially when the European directive on e-privacy is just around the corner (6). The justification for such design changes takes little imagination, and there are unlikely to be any negative repercussions, aside from those coming from users who liked it the way it was.

There is another factor that drives the usability movement: the cult of the user. Users are all things to all people in the world of usability – they can be customers who will take their customer loyalty to another website with one mouse click, individuals suffering at the hands of big businesses that refuse to display their prices clearly on their websites, or less able people suffering from everything from visual impairment to ignorance of basic browser functionality.

Users provide an excellent means of winning an argument when participating in a web design discussion – the slightest suggestion that you have not got the users’ needs foremost in your mind can trump your case.

Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think exemplifies the diminished view of the user, who is characterised in the book as being an impatient, harassed imbecile unable to cope with the slightest cognitive stress. The book is full of passages such as: ‘[the user] should be able to “get it” – what it is and how to use it – without expending any effort thinking about it’ (7).

This is fair enough, from a web design perspective, except when it is used to justify reducing interface design to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately much of the usability literature, including Krug’s book, capitalises on a highly conservative view of how technology can be taken forward. The widespread adoption of the arguments of Krug and Nielsen must be seen in this context.

At a time when the customer service culture has penetrated every level of business, and businesspeople fret endlessly over issues such as customer loyalty, companies are extremely susceptible to worries that they are, without even knowing it, turning customers away. At a time when everybody from surgeons to captains of industry is apt to resign because of adverse public opinion, and banks avoid giving profitable loans to a publicity leper like the UK animal research laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences, companies and other institutions can hardly be accused of ignoring their constituency.

In fact, it is more the case that economic and technical development is hindered by cautious and nervous organisations, overly concerned with what they believe to be public opinion.

It is difficult to imagine Cisco CEO John Chambers declaring today, as he once did, that the New Economy ‘is truly the second Industrial Revolution’ (8) without being laughed at. And when Bill Gates predicted in his book Business @ the Speed of Thought that business in the 2000s would be about velocity (9), he probably didn’t foresee a ‘gap year’ just as the second industrial revolution was gearing up. The fact that these proclamations can seem so absurd so quickly is, perhaps, testament to how little they are grounded in reality.

And when the most powerful vision for the web comes from Jakob Nielsen – a man who criticises Microsoft’s homepage because the ‘Freedom to innovate’ link is wrongly categorised under ‘Resources’ – one wonders whether things are moving forwards or backwards.

It would be wrong to see the current rise of the user advocate as wholly bad for the web. Nielsen sees his band of user advocates as having successfully won a battle against ‘design excess and fashion-driven sites that contradicted everything we knew about behaviour’. Many of these design excesses were committed at a time when the Creative Economy was a fashionable notion, and as a consequence, creativity was fetishised and sorely misunderstood. Speaking as somebody who worked for a web design agency in the late 1990s, I can vouch for the fact that, at the time, thinking inside-the-box was virtually a sackable offence.

But there is clearly more to the rise of user advocacy than meets the eye. At best, mixed in with an entirely rational desire for websites to be more user-friendly, there is an overzealous correction in favour of simplicity and the lowest common denominator. At worst, the usability movement is symptomatic of a more profound lack of faith in our ability to use technology to help transform society.

Read on:

Excuse-ability, by Martyn Perks

(1) Ebusiness winners will take advantage of the gap year, Mark Raskino, 11 October 2001, Gartner

(2) See Jakob Nielsen’s website

(3) Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, New Riders, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(4) See the Events page of the Nielsen Norman Group website

(5) Small growth in IT spend presages recovery in 2003, Nick Huber, Computer Weekly, 10 January 2002

(6) See Europe tackles internet privacy, BBC News Online, 13 November 2001

(7) Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, p11. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(8) Greenspan at mercy of the markets, Jamie Doward, Observer, 22 April 2001

(9) Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought: Succeeding in the Digital Economy, pXIII. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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