October 31, 2003

OK/Cancel: A Comic Strip for Me

"OK/Cancel is a comic strip written for a very specific audience, but much of what we talk about is quite universal. Most everybody can relate to things in the world which don't work like they should -- and you needn't be a usability specialist, interaction designer, industrial designer or any sort of designer to appreciate that frustration. But if you ARE any of those aforementioned people or have had the pleasure and pain of working with one or more of this rare breed, this strip is for you."

I like this particular strip.

[via UsabilityNews]

October 30, 2003

US kids are more wired than ever - is that good?
Do we really need to close the Digital Divide?

The AP reports on a new study released by the US National Center for Education Statistics

"If kids today seem more wired than ever, it's because they are. About 90 percent of people ages 5 to 17 use computers and 59 percent of them use the Internet -- rates that are, in both cases, higher than those of adults. Even kindergartners are becoming more plugged in: One out of four 5-year-olds uses the Internet."

"Children are often the first adopters of a lot of technology,'' said John Bailey, who oversees educational technology for the department. "They grow up with it. They don't have to adapt to it. ... Students, by and large, are dominating the Internet population.''

The report predictably discusses the use of computers in schools and the "digital divide." You often hear the media, technology vendors, and educators use these kinds of statistics to cry for more computers and technology in schools.

As a parent, I question whether more technology is what we most need in schools. I wonder if the technology in place and the way it's used in classrooms is really worth the cost. I'm not talking about just financial costs either. Consider also the opportunity costs: use of teacher time, use of students' time, use of physical space, etc.

I'm a heavy technology user; I've advocated and sold many computer-based technologies in the past. Yet, I still wonder if our children shouldn't be focusing on other things or learning in other ways. There's an excellent report called "Computers Make Kids Smarter—Right?" that analyzed current research (as of 1998) and raised some excellent questions. If you're wondering if your local schools need more technology, I recommend you skim this report to learn what questions you should be asking educators and school boards. I know I'll have a keener eye to what my daughter is doing in the with computers in the classroom after looking this over.

"Over the past 30 years, studies of classroom use of computers have indeed found evidence of moderate effectiveness when it comes to the academic performance of students who use them. They also have found evidence of minimum effectiveness. And of no effectiveness at all."

"To answer the urgent question that many policymakers, practitioners, and parents ask—do students using computers learn more, faster, and better than if they were taught in familiar, nontechnological ways?—few of the interested parties have delved into the findings researchers have provided. Most have simply assumed that computers are effective and rushed to put new technologies into schools

"While it is clear that students will need to know how to manipulate databases, word processors, and other computer applications if they are to be competitive in the labor and undergraduate markets, what is less clear is how effective computers are as teaching tools or levers for transforming classroom organization. In coming to policy decisions about the best use of computers in schools, these distinct goals must be recognized and considered individually."

For another viewpoint, see Music Beats Computers at Enhancing Early Childhood Development

Closing the Digital Divide
As I mentioned, the report also highlights the "digital divide." Some will continue to say we need to "close the digital divide." (President Clinton called the divide the "key civil rights issue of the 21st century," and the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in calling for help to close the global digital divide, even recently asserted that technology "can and must be harnessed to our global mission of peace and development." Can someone please tell me how more technology in the world helps establish more peace? Do we really know that computers are what disadvantaged people need most? Do poor inner-city dwellers need a computer more than a job? Do kids need a computer instead of a mentor? Should we bypass building a park for kids to play in if it means we can provide instant access to MTV.com for Brittany-depraved teens?

Sure, you can assert that I shouldn't sit in my connected home and claim that others don't need what I have. But here's my point: I know I'd rate Internet access for my kids as a very low priority on a list of things that enhance their lives. What things are at the top of the list? Having two parents, a good family income, food on the table, friends to play with, outside space to play in, a dog or cat to die so they learn about loss early in life, a family vacation, books to read and color in, and so on... One of the best "schools" I had in life was working on cars with my grandfather. He taught me a lot of things about problem solving, improvising, having a "can-do" attitude, etc. My kids won't learn those kinds of lessons from Reader Rabbit.

October 29, 2003

Eddie Bauer Gets It, and It Shows

"Troy Brown, divisional vice president of e-commerce at Eddie Bauer, told the E-Commerce Times that there is no magic mix of hardware and software in use. Rather, the company stays on top of its game by holding true to some very nontechnical tactics derived from Eddie himself. "When he launched the company, he would literally run from customer to customer," Brown said. "Our goal is to bring that to our site."

"In the company's headquarters is a customer experience lab, where users surf the site and suggest changes. Any potential change to the site is tested extensively in this lab. If it fails the lab test, it is discarded, according to Brown. 'We say that our site is designed by our customers, for our customers,' he said. 'Customers are involved in every step of design and improvement.' ... The lab has been operating for two years, and Brown said the amount of change that has taken place in that time period has been staggering. Eddie Bauer has seen a large decrease in cart abandonment and a big boost in new customers."
from E-Commerce News: What Is Eddie Bauer Doing Right?

Just another example...
Just look at the top ecommerce sites, the sites cited day in and day out as "best practice" sites: every one of them has used a healthy dose of usability methods in getting to and staying in front of the competition. See Amazon, Google, Ebay, Land's End, Eddie Bauer, Yahoo!, etc., etc., etc.

See also:
- Good Experience: Interview with Marissa Mayer, Product Manager, Google
- Good Experience: Interview with Maryam Mohit, Amazon.com
Information Overload: New Study Finds Data increasing

"There is twice as much new information in the world as there was just three years ago -- and most of it isn't very interesting. The researchers concluded that the amount of new information produced last year was about 23 exabytes. An exabyte is a million terabytes. A terabyte is a million megabytes -- roughly equivalent to the content of a million books." (from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
There's a whole lot of boring information out there)

The original Berkeley report "How Much Information? 2003" has a section dedicated to Internet and Web that is quite interesting. It agregates a lot of other research and provides some interesting statistics. For example, they estimate the total size of the surface web as 167 TB. There are also stats on Blogs, Spam, Instant Messaging, and Peer to Peer networking.

See also:
- The Register: US outguzzles world+dog in paper, bandwidth consumption in which they comment "it should come as no shock that EMC, HP, Intel and Microsoft 'supported' the study"
- Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
Misuse of usability report findings continues

Sigh. Why should the twisting of words and meanings be limited to politics?

Linux on the desktop is a snap, study finds:
"According to a recent study on Linux desktop usability, the graphical user interface for the open source operating system is no sweat, even for the novice user. A report published by Relevantive, a German IT consulting firm, found that laymen Linux end users could grasp Linux as easily as Windows XP."

Who ever said Windows XP is a "snap"?

See also:
- Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: The Worst Social Statistic Ever
- Lyle: Sez U: Linux nears Windows XP usability
- Phil Hodgson: Usability test data - good clarification on what's qualitative vs. quanitative
- Lyle: Usability and Open Source Software
- Lyle: Open Letter to a Power User / Developer

October 28, 2003

Counting Australia with computers

Australia will be conducting a census in 2006 with an online option:
"In August, [the Australian Bureau of Statistics] conducted a test of the 2006 form among 6000 households in Brisbane, focusing on design and usability. Nauenburg said the trial was a success, with 4.5 per cent of households choosing to complete the electronic form. 'We learnt we have to continue to focus on accessibility and usability but it was good to hear that people would be prepared to conduct the census electronically,' he said."

Also in the article: the Swiss Federal Statistical Office ran their first electronic census in 2000 and only saw a 10% failure rate. (10% of questionnaires started online were not completed.)

The U.S. and Britain are projecting their first online censuses in 2010.

See also:
U.S. Census Bureau Usability Lab - an interesting site that appears to be under development.

Nokia launches TV phone

Now I can watch TV while driving to work... :-)

"New Nokia cell phone model allows users to watch television, listen to radio, take photos, video."

Usability.gov gets some press, and quietly releases new version of guidelines

The usability team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are highlighted in two articles today talking about their web usability guidelines. Government Computer News (GCN) has an article called HHS issues usability guide for site design -- but read on here for the most exciting news for designers and usability practitioners...

First, it's great to see the head of a government agency announcing and promoting use of usability guidelines. This is clearly the result of a great job at promotion by Sanjay and the Usability.gov team, who should be congratulated.

From the foreword by Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services:
"Unfortunately, too many federal agencies have developed their websites according to their own needs, not the needs of the citizens they serve. For this and other reasons, the PresidentÂ’s E-government Act indicated that federal IT systems should be citizen-centered. An important part of creating a citizen-centered website is the use of research on how citizens interact with websites. This book, which translates research into practical, easy-to-understand guidelines, helps those in charge of federal websites save time and valuable resources."

The guidelines have been majorly updated

The GCN article points to a new page that has printable PDFs for download, complete with an introduction, forewords, indices and much more. What's strangely not mentioned, yet good to see, is that the article points to a completely revised version of the guidelines when compared to what's currently available from the top of the usability.gov site. (The forewords are both from 2003.) If you compare the PDF versions, the usability.gov site has a page for "printing complete guidelines" which looks old (from 2001), but maps pretty closely to what's available under "guidelines" on the usability.gov site. The old print version is much smaller than the new one (73 pages and 2.6 MB versus 128 pages and 39.2 MB). Also, the old PDF is basically a printout of the web site, while the new version is formatted like a book - much better for printing and using as a hard copy since it has accurate pages numbers, a TOC, indices, etc.

In comparing the content of the new version versus the web site, it's clear the new version contains a lot of new work. There are now 17 sections to the guidelines (versus 14), and a number of old sections have been restructured and renamed. I noticed that the ratings for "relative importance" and "strength of evidence" for each guideline have been updated as well.

So, this all means the guidelines currently on the usability.gov site are outdated, and the NCI team (hopefully) has a major web site update coming. The more current version of their usability guidelines is available as a PDF printable handbook. Go get it!

Finally, I'd agree with usability guru, Ben Schneiderman, who in his foreword says:
"These new NCI Web usability Guidelines carry forward one of the most enduring success stories in user interface design. They continue the noble tradition of thoughtful practitioners who have hacked their way through the unruly design landscape and then distilled their experience into compact and generalizable aphorisms or patterns. Compilations of such guidelines offer newcomers a clearer roadmap to follow, helping them to avoid some of the swamps and potholes. Guidelines serve experienced experts and busy managers by giving them an overview and reminding them of the wide range of issues."

See also:
- Federal Computer Week: Guide released for federal Web design