The whiteboard

IX.4 July 2002
Page: 13
Digital Citation

The emperor has no lab coat


Can you achieve usable designs without a usability
  process, without the involvement of a usability professional?
  Some researchers say sure, it happens all the time. But how?
  According to George Olsen, those who achieve this are very
  good designers who bring a breadth of knowledge to their
  work? including user focus and sensitivity. It’s usability
  professionals, he says, who miss seeing the usability in what
  these groups are doing. Usability must stop ignoring the
  wider context. — Elizabeth Buie


We start with a paradox.


Jared Spool has been reporting that the most usable sites
  he studied didn’t have usability specialists or use
  user-centered design techniques.


They didn’t use formal user-centered design techniques.
  They didn’t do usability tests. No heuristic evaluations.
  Nothing that Spool said he recognized as traditional
  usability techniques. Yet they produced some of the most
  usable sites Spool had seen. What’s going on?


Well it’s simple, really. These companies are examples of
  how good design is produced by good designers. And no, I
  don’t mean that as a tautology.


For some reason, too many usability specialists seem
  unable or unwilling to step into the role of
  design—which is where the real action is and why
  usability specialists may be an endangered species unless
  they’re willing to take off the white lab coats and dirty
  themselves in design.


Yes, user research is important. Yes, usability testing to
  validate your design is important. But an experienced
  designer or engineer has internalized the lessons from both
  and is much more likely to get it right the first time.


The general principles of usability aren’t all that
  difficult—although the devil is in the
  details—and despite what some in the usability
  community might like to think, it’s far from the only
  profession that knows something or two about making things
  usable. So it’s not surprising that the teams Spool studied
  obviously had a good intuitive grasp of them regardless of
  what they said they were doing or whether usability
  professions would recognize the techniques.


In fact, Spool found that although one might never hear
  the word “usability” uttered, these companies were extremely
  focused on users and their goals, often going to great
  lengths to learn new things.


That’s hardly surprising to me, since the best people in a
  variety of professions are user-focused even if they don’t
  call it that. And the successful companies profiled in the
  Harvard Business Review invariably take “listening to
  your customers” seriously and probably use an approach that’s
  similar to the ones Spool saw—albeit in the broader
  field of customer service. (Interestingly, one of the hot new
  ideas identified within the business world by the review is
  the notion that you don’t want to listen too closely to your
  customers. You should ask them for the desired outcomes, but
  customers aren’t expert or informed enough to come up with
  solutions. In others words, it’s up to you to design


Unfortunately, Spool didn’t report on the background of
  the teams he observed, since it would’ve been interesting to
  see if they came from other professions that have traditions
  that produce “usable work”—for example, graphic


Skilled and experienced graphic designers, especially
  those who’ve done publication design, know design
  “rules-of-thumb” that tend to produce better interfaces. The
  best designers give quite a bit of thought about the intended
  audience for the materials (printed or digital) that they
  produce, even if they rarely talk about it. Graphic design as
  a field tends to be intuitive and have fewer “left-brain”
  formulas than the usability field does. However, these
  rules-of-thumb have been developed by centuries of beta
  testing. And so, in the hands of a good designer, the user
  interfaces of printed documents have been refined to the
  point where they’re generally “invisible” to readers unless
  the designer consciously calls attention to them (for
  example, in Wired or like-designed magazines).


One of the examples of sensitivity toward users cited by
  Spool was how eBay changed its background color from yellow
  to white. To avoid jarring users, the eBay team changed the
  shades subtly, day-by-day, over several weeks. Users never
  even noticed. But this gradual change of their site is
  nothing new. It’s basic knowledge of one approach to
  overhauling a publication or corporate identity. I did the
  same thing a decade ago when redoing a newspaper’s design
  when we wanted to avoid upsetting readers. (Conversely, there
  are times when you want a visible overhaul. In another
  redesign, we wanted to signal a change in management and the
  newspaper was no longer going to be neglected the way it had
  been for 20 years.)


And speaking of newspapers, good journalists spend a good
  amount of time thinking about their readers. Internalizing
  knowledge of readers and what they want is a critical skill
  for an editor. In fact, most editors of newspapers or
  magazines would laugh at you if you asked whether the
  structure of their stories had been tested with readers
  before its publication. To them, creating effective story
  structure is a matter of professional judgment—judgment
  refined by years of learning their craft through hard-won
  experience. Typically much of that experience comes as a
  reporter, where dealing with people constantly gives you a
  feel for who your readers are and what they’re interested


Likewise, the best business analysts, systems analysts,
  and systems engineers I’ve met tend to think a lot about
  users—but again it’s not something they normally talk
  about because that’s not the way their professions think
  about their jobs. Instead, they usually think about it in
  terms of just doing a good job of developing requirements.
  The Volere Requirements Specification Template never mentions
  user-centered design but incorporates many similar concerns.
  In fact, if you read Mastering the Requirements
, in which Volere’s creators, Suzanne and James
  Robertson, talk about putting Volere into practice, you find
  their approach contains elements of ethnography and
  contextual design. The classic Exploring Requirements
  by Gerald M. Weinberg has a similar focus on users.


And truly customer-focused marketing people definitely
  share the same user-focused mentality. Procter & Gamble’s
  famous definition of marketing, dating back to the 1930s, is
  that it’s “the discipline concerned with solving people’s
with products and services for a profit”
  (emphasis mine). Likewise, modern brand strategy is no longer
  just about coming up with a cool name and logo; it’s about
  the brand experience—the totality of the experiences
  consumers have with your company’s product, services,
  communications, and people. True, many people in both
  professions only give lip-service to user-focused approaches,
  but far-sighted marketing and brand strategists realize that
  the balance of power is shifting.


These other professions may not have techniques that
  usability people would recognize as user-centered design
  techniques, but I’d say that has more to do with the
  short-sightedness of the usability profession and a failure
  to look beyond its boundaries and recognize that other
  professions just might have some good ideas. If I’m being
  harsh, it’s precisely because I’m familiar with these other
  professions and see the value they can bring—and how
  “traditional” usability has ignored them.


This ignorance of the wider context is one source of the
  credibility problems usability professionals seem to
  regularly complain about. Jakob Nielsen argues that the
  relationship of a usability specialist and a designer should
  be that of an editor to a writer. The designer creates
  something and the usability specialist works with him or her
  to make it better. The problem is that, too often, usability
  specialists come across as editors who don’t know their
  grammar and spelling.


It’s worth noting that Nielsen thinks it takes a decade
  and a wide variety of experience to be able to offer great
  advice. I’d agree; I just think that experience needs to go
  beyond just “usability” experience. When dealing with other
  specialists, usability specialists all too often appear
  uninformed about the basics of the field they’re critiquing.
  This can be a particular problem when they’re interacting
  with graphic designers about user interface issues. Visual
  design is a subtle art—a change here almost always
  affects something elsewhere. Rarely have I seen usability
  guidelines about user interfaces that have shown much
  understanding of this subtle interplay. And it’s shocking how
  few books on usability engineering even touch on this vital
  part of the user interface.


Likewise, usability specialists all too often appear
  hypnotized by the fetish of efficiency, unwilling to consider
  that competing factors—for example, the need for
  building a brand identity—may need to be balanced in
  the design. Or that there’s more to life than time spent on a


In my opinion, we need to distinguish between principles
  of usability and the process of creating usable Web sites and
  products. I think the profession does know much about the
  principles of usability. It’s just that this knowledge isn’t
  as unique as many people would like to think—it’s
  knowledge shared by other professions. Instead it’s the
  process of applying those principles that goes to the heart
  of Spool’s paradox.


Usability as it is traditionally practiced has three
  problems. First is the idea of the separate usability
  specialist—one of Spool’s key findings about the
  commonalities of organizations that don’t produce usable Web
  sites. Yes, ideally this person is a resource for and
  inspires the rest of the team. Unfortunately, in reality two
  problems develop. As Spool found, they often become a
  bottleneck in the organization. And far more seriously, what
  often happens is that concern about usability gets shuffled
  off onto this person, which makes it too easy for developers
  to abdicate responsibility.




You can’t research or test your way to
  good design; you can only design your way there.




Second, most usability specialists I’ve met argue too
  often that usability should be done because it’s “The Right
  Thing To Do” (and yes, you can hear the capital letters),
  instead of pointing out how usability will benefit customers
  and ultimately the business. In contrast, Spool found that
  the teams that produce usable products without usability
  specialists have a real understanding of the business
  advantages of usability. When they talked about user-centered
  design, it was always in terms of how this will help the
  business succeed—and even if they were “The Right Thing
  To Do,” user-centered improvements weren’t worth doing unless
  they also benefited the business.


But a third problem is that too many usability specialists
  seem to emphasize user research or testing over design. User
  research is important for gaining a better understand.
  Testing is important for validating your design. But in
  either case, it ain’t design.


You can’t research your way to good design, you can’t test
  your way to good design; you can only design your way there.
  So doesn’t it make sense for those attuned to usability
  issues to have a hand in it? Those who are usability
  engineers already are doing so—which is why you find
  similarities in skills and responsibilities with information
  architects (whose main difference is coming from a focus more
  on content than on interaction). But if you just want to
  analyze and critique, you’ll need to content yourself with
  second-class citizenship. It may mean giving up “usability”
  in your title for something else, if that’s what enables you
  to get where the action is. And the flip side is that you may
  also need to broaden your skills beyond “usability” in order
  to be an effective designer.


It’s time to stop evangelizing usability while trying to
  maintain the mystique that it can only be done by
  white-coated specialists. Decisions about usability will
  continue to be made whether usability specialists take part
  in the design process or not—and many organizations
  will never be big enough to sustain a full-time usability
  specialist. It’s time to “give away” usability techniques and
  processes to the masses.


Will they do it as well as we do? Probably not. But
  usability done imperfectly is still far better than no
  attention to usability at all. And it sows the seeds for a
  variety of people to see how usability connects to their own
  traditions of focusing on users.


It’s also time for the usability research community to get
  out of the lab and into the field. Over the years at SIGCHI
  I’ve been astounded at the amount of bad and irrelevant
  research. Researchers have to provide more useful research
  for practitioners, instead of the sterile lab exercises,
  written up in academic jargon for other researchers. The
  fetish of “obscurity equals profundity” is unfortunately
  widespread within academia, but it’s especially ironic within
  a field focused on usability.


Likewise, usability researchers have to bring in people
  from other professions to avoid repeating some of the
  embarrassingly obvious mistakes they’ve made when straying
  into other fields—mistakes that cast doubt on good work
  they may have actually done. Similarly, researchers need to
  learn more about related professions that take user-focused
  approaches (even if they’re not called that).


A critical need also exists for case studies on the
  processes and companies that create usable sites—and I
  mean case studies, not lab tests. Case studies have an
  honorable tradition in other “soft” sciences. Unfortunately,
  the research community seems to suffer from physics envy,
  seemingly thinking that if we just throw enough numbers into
  the mix, we’ll be taken seriously. The irony is that the
  “hardest” of the “hard” sciences, quantum mechanics, holds
  that probabilities, not absolutes, rule any physical system.
  And that’s even truer for humans, who are far more complex
  multivariable systems than mere matter is.


Who knows? If we make some of these changes, we might end
  up with user-friendly research, research that might be
  noticed by those “nonusability” professionals—who are
  busy designing usable sites and products.




George Olsen


George Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design, a user
  experience consultancy. He’s done award-winning Web and
  interactive multimedia work for a variety of companies, from
  DotCom start-ups to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500
  companies. He started his career as a journalist, then
  switched to graphic design, before he discovered “new media”
  in the early 1990s. George is also editor of Boxes and Arrows
  [] an online magazine about
  information architecture, interaction design and user
  experience. He enjoys rollerblading in the dead of winter
  just to torment Easterners with tales of sunny Los


Whiteboard Column Editor


Elizabeth Buie


Senior Principal Engineer

  Computer Sciences Corporation

  15245 Shady Grove Road

  Rockville, MD 20850


  fax: +1-301-921-2069


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