User Savvy

The true use of usability expertise

An article in Clickz Monday asked, "Are usability experts any use?" Author Sean Carton notes that usability in itself should not be an end goal, and that stringent measures of task completion are a poor gauge of Web site effectiveness.

To which I say, absolutely.

Let's assess this in more detail, using quotes from Carton's piece.

Rather than simply a place to accomplish tasks, the Web is a vital conduit for communications and experience. Choosing an online store isn't just about selection, price, or search function.

Ah, but isn't that usability too? The discipline includes more than simply hiring Ph.D.'s in HCI and whipping out "stopwatches, video cameras, and keystroke recorders" to see what users do. To me, usability involves the entire experience of a site—taking in the color-coordination, layout, and style, not simply the placement of items and speed of page load (although getting them right can't hurt).

After all, we're talking science here, right? More than three clicks to get to a piece of information? Bad!

Well, yeah. Carton cites Amazon and Google as examples of sites with good usability that are not alike, but both are usually able to deliver you the information you requested in two clicks. They specialize in not getting users lost—a prime tenet of smart usability.

Most Web sites we marketers are involved in must engage users, build brands, entertain, elicit emotion, delight our customers, and provide information. Those first qualities—engagement, branding, entertainment, emotion, and delight—can't be measured by clicks and stopwatches. They're subtler than that. The qualities that make people want to come back can't be timed, clicked, or tracked. They work, or they don't.

I personally diverge from linear usability experts here in agreeing that branding and emotional feedback are just as important as achieving goals. Users have to leave a site with a positive memory, and that making an online experience mirror the brand and experience of its offline counterpart (when there is one) is also vital.

Quality and usability are the table stakes. But it's design that really matters.

This simply replaces one oversimplification with another. Usability, design, speed, branding, copy: all are equally essential to a quality creation. To neglect one is to expose gaps in all the others. An easy-to-use site that is hideously designed won't attract users; a beautiful site that is impossible to navigate won't keep them.

What makes the Web different from any other communications medium is it's the one place where design and usability must converge.

Now we're talking! Carton continues by stating, "A good Web site (or online experience) must provide valuable functionality while engaging emotions and aesthetic senses." I couldn't agree more. To succeed, make it look good, work well, and speak in a voice that engages and informs the user.

Instead of denigrating the usability industry while patting the heads of design teams everywhere, Carton should stay focused on his true message, which I support wholeheartedly: "Great online experiences aren't just about unfettered design or functionality. They're about both."

David Wertheimer, December 3, 2003 [permanent link]
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