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Much of usability research and design is focused on making Web sites or Web applications easier to use. However, too often we focus on the task-at-hand rather than really trying to understand the higher-level goal that drives the user to move from one task to another. In other words, we forget about the "forest" as we concentrate on the individual "trees".
Most human activity has a flow to it, a series of tasks or activities which culminate in the person achieving their goal. In web design, it is easy to ignore this overall flow and context. Concentrating on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of static Web pages, or even dynamic database query results, will only take us so far. To move beyond this, we must develop a deeper understanding of what the person is trying to accomplish. Let's look at a few examples.
Recently, our company was looking to buy a new colour printer. For this kind of purchase, many shoppers have a goal to compare their options. However, several sites had no support for comparison. We had to find each printer's specifications and pricing individually and then print them out or open multiple windows to try and compare.
Other sites, like HP, create a comparison table after the user checks off printers of interest. In this example screen shot you can see the checkboxes on the left side.
Clicking the "Compare Selected" button near the top generated the following comparison chart.
HP helped us partially complete our goal because they allowed us to compare models within our category of interest - color laser printers. However, it wouldn't help much if someone is unsure of what they want and has a goal to find out what types of printers might best address their needs.
Dell caters better to someone with the goal of getting recommendations. Their Printer Advisor feature asks a few questions, as shown on the right in the following screen shot. As you click various answers, the Printer Advisor dynamically updates the range of options and the resulting matches are shown on the left. This is a great way to obtain a manageable number of printers to compare.
When the "Compare" link (centre top with arrow pointing to it) is clicked, a table is created comparing your choices. Note that the Printer Advisor tries to differentiate each printer and also bring the critical comparisons to the top of the list; those that correspond to the criteria specified in the answers given - for example, cost per printed page. This addresses not only the task of comparing specifications and prices but also some of the higher level goal of "comparing options against criteria important to your business".
Unfortunately, some other manufacturers have not quite grasped the concept designing for the goals and tasks of comparison shopping. Lexmark's Printer Guidester™ takes the user through a number of questions to narrow the choices but ends up showing two models where the descriptions and specifications are identical and yet one costs almost 3 times as much as the other. Ignoring users' goals and tasks is a recipe for some very frustrated users.
But, have Dell and HP really addressed the ultimate goal of the user? Yes, they enable people to see selected printers side-by-side, but they leave it to the user to make the comparison on each attribute and determine which is cheaper, faster, or whatever. All these sites support some elements of the task of choosing a printer, but none of them fully support the users' goals.
In our new workshop, "Designing usable Web-based applications", we explore enhanced, goal-oriented design practices in depth, demonstrating the application of sound design and behavioural principles using many examples of good and bad design (see the following news item).
Thursday, February 9 is your last opportunity to save $100 when you sign up for our new one-day workshop: Designing usable Web-based applications. On February 16th, learn how to design for the special challenges of migrating applications to the Web.
People's expectations regarding usability of Web-based applications have been raised by experiences with Web sites like Amazon, Netflix, eBay, and Google. Whether you are designing or developing for government or private industry it is critical to understand the evolution of behaviour on the Web. In this one-day workshop you will learn the latest techniques for ensuring successful Web-based applications, participate in live usability testing and mini-heuristic reviews of participant's Web sites, see numerous examples of good and bad design, and walk away with an arsenal of practical tools and job-aids to start using immediately.
You'll learn how to:
Event recording is a long-standing method for studying user behaviour in a usability test. Recent solutions have made event recording even more cost effective and efficient. We use Morae to provide a superior solution for portable usability testing. Morae Recorder records all screen interactions (keyboard input, mouse input, and screen transitions) plus video of the user's facial expressions and voice. Version 1.3 adds several new features. A zooming timeline makes it faster to focus in on important areas of the test. Adjusting video in and out points can be fine tuned on the timeline now without opening a separate dialog. A global clip bin allows you to see all video clips associated with a project in one place. Video segments and/or clips can be created in either Analyzer or Presenter modes – no more switching required. Title clips can be customized with your logo or graphics. User-created folders allow more flexibility in arranging clips, segments and markers. And finally, colour coded markers make it easier to discriminate categories of usability events.
The TechSmith web site provides additional details on Morae.
If you are interested in seeing a demo of Morae in action, please give us a call at (613) 271-3001 or email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of you who are not familiar with the product, Morae Remote Viewer permits stakeholders in other locations to watch the usability testing in real-time. After testing, Morae Manager facilitates analysis of all user activities and supports creation of highlight videos – useful for letting everyone on the design and development team see and understand the usability issues.
Quote of the month
"Once an online form
goes beyond two screenfulls, it's often a sign that the underlying functionality
is better supported by an application, which offers a more interactive
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