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 them.)

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 design.

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 in.

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 Process, 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 problems 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 task.

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
[email protected]

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 Angeles.

Whiteboard Column Editor

Elizabeth Buie

Senior Principal Engineer
Computer Sciences Corporation
15245 Shady Grove Road
Rockville, MD 20850
fax: +1-301-921-2069
[email protected]

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