Don't Try This at Home

As more and more businesses incorporate Web-based and automated services, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that these services are comprehensible
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Don't Try This at Home

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Mark Johnson

As more and more businesses incorporate Web-based and automated services, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that these services are comprehensible and easy to use. Although Web-based services are relatively new, computer control and automated services such as telephone answering and support systems have been used for quite some time. Most people within the high-tech industry today could easily rattle off a hit list of the five most convoluted Web sites they've visited, the three most clunky automated telephone systems, or the most confusing computer-based application. Maybe we should offer a yearly award for poor usability, similar to being named to Mr. Blackwell's worst-dressed list.

My point is this: all too often, these products and services are designed by people intimately involved in the development of the product but not well versed in user interface design. Although the ultimate users are considered, they are not usually consulted. Focus groups, field research, and usability testing all gain new importance in order to make products that can be fully and easily utilized in their intended environment. While one might argue that a certain level of sophistication must be attained in order to operate high-tech devices that are becoming more and more commonplace, it's important to constantly evaluate who the users are, including their tasks, skills, and motivation.

Similarities can be drawn to the early days of loudspeaker system design. The outward appearance of the seemingly simple construction of a speaker enclosure, combined with components that were readily available, lead to the belief that practically anyone with access to a table saw could build a loudspeaker. There were certainly people out there with education and training in the theory and science of loudspeaker design, but the marketplace was (and still is) proliferated with wooden boxes filled with mismatched components.

One of the common pitfalls faced by product design teams today is that because the tools to design and implement a user interface are so readily available, many people believe they have the required skill set to do so. I learned fairly early on that even though I had access to wood, speaker components, and a saw and I was a pretty good carpenter, I was most definitely not a loudspeaker designer. I decided to leave things such as that to professionals.

The same now holds true for user interfaces. When designing products or services for your customers, don't entrust the task of user interface design to amateurs. Whether you choose to use in-house personnel or consultants, make sure you use someone with experience in designing user interfaces — someone who knows how to find usability problems.

Why risk alienating a customer because of a poorly designed interface? Many people have heard the buzzword intuitive applied to user interfaces. Make sure the interface is intuitive to the customer who has never used, or has little experience with, your product or service, not the person who just spent the past 24 months developing it.

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