Making usability user-friendly towards clients
July 26, 2001
Web Word has an interesting interview with Jared Spool who seems to be another usability person who's realizing that usability is too important to be left only to specialists. I've had my differences over Spool's conclusions over the years—his self-conscious stance of an "innocent" makes him great for raising questions, but often causes problems when he tries provide conclusions. However, this time I think he's nailed some of the issues.

Some highlights:

As far as I can see, the things that were done right in making web sites more usable didn't happen in the usability community.  It's interesting to note that the most usable sites in our studies, such as Dell, eBay, Amazon, and Edmunds have no real usability efforts to speak of. eBay has a relatively new team that is only a handful of folks, Dell also has a small team compared to the size and impact of their site.  The others: practically no usability team…

…I think a huge problem with the Usability Community is that we're trying to be a "community". Usability is an attribute—some things are more usable, some things are less.…The companies that are doing the best at usability don't seem to have a community. Instead, they have a culture.  A culture where people perform the activities needed to create usable sites just because the culture dictates that's how things are done.

To me it's evidence of Alan Cooper's adage that you don't test your way to good design, you design your way to good design. (Of course you need testing to validate that you've really got a good design.)

So why isn't usability getting incorporated into the culture? Part of the reason is an attitude I think is too common among usability specialists (which is why I've been hard on them lately). I'll let Spool describe:

(W)ith the success of the Mac, we got on this evangelism bent.

So, now the entire field finds itself in the role of preachers of a religion of sorts versus researchers of best practices. And we're now beginning to see pushback.

My sense is that people don't want to be lectured to.  They want to get their problems solved. Repeating the same mantras over and over again doesn't help them solve their problems.  Real data on what works and what doesn't would help them solve their problems…

…The biggest example of how wrong we've been falls in our response to business.  Recently, a reporter interviewed me for a story she was doing on why we haven't really seen any real improvements in the usability of web sites over the last few years. She had interviewed the "usual suspects" of gurus and consultants in the industry by the time she'd gotten around to me.

The first thing I said to her was: "No matter what anyone else has told you, it's not the fault of the company."  Her response was "That's funny! Everyone else said it was the fault of the company"  She went on to say that this cadre of intellect had told her that if only these silly companies would wake up and understand that usability was important, the world would be a better place.  That's our [the usability profession's] position: all these companies are idiots and need to change.

It's ironic: For years, usability folks have cringed every time a designer says "the users need to make major changes to their behaviors if they want to use my product."  Yet, what do usability professionals do?  They make businesses undergo major changes to their behaviors if they want to produce usable products!

…As a profession, we need to spend a lot more resources on basic research.  We need to stop thinking that there are pat, one-size-fits-all solutions to every problem. And we need to align ourselves with the business goals more directly.  We need to make our own work usable.


Unfortunately, Spool falls victim to the ivory tower syndrome he describes when he adds:

We need to understand how to build more cultures like these.  We need to understand how they've come about, how they flourish, and how they become interwoven into the patch quilt of the business.

This knowledge isn't particularly secret, it's basic consulting best practices, covered by such books as Jerry Weinberg's excellent "The Secrets of Consulting," which should be required reading for anyone in the user experience design field. (Regardless of whether you're a formal consultant, we often made recommendations that have to be carried out by other people.)

And as a consultant, to quote Jerry, "No matter how it looks at first, it's always a people problem." I actually do think that businesses often do need to change to incorporate usability into their design and development culture. But just as in the rest of life, getting people to change their ways requires understanding their world view and demonstrating the value of change in terms that are meaningful to them—not sermons on "this is what you ought to do." ::

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