August 20, 2004

Moving Forms to the Web

I just found this real gem about forms usability: a PDF handout from Ginny Redish's talk entitled "Moving Forms to the Web" that she gave at Usability University (a US Government training program) in June 2004.

Ginny offers a lot in this little PDF:
- The section called "planning to move forms online" offers a great approach on how to go about researching user and business needs prior to designing an online form. The approach is comprehensive yet pragmatic - something I really appreciate as a practitioner.
- She outlines 17 guidelines for consideration when designing web forms.

Download the PDF Handout from Ginny's site.

I got to know Ginny a bit better at UPA 2004, where she gave a great keynote address on communities. (You can find those slides online too, but one of the reasons her talk was great because it was interactive and engaging with PowerPoint playing a minimal role in the overall mix. Therefore, the slides don't really stand alone.)
Don't Read This Article

Please don't read this trash masquerading as usability advice.

Here are a few tips for the author:
1) Actually know something about the topic you're writing about.
2) Follow your own advice: "If your site [or article] has too much content ensure readability" ... and accuracy, and validity, and clarity, etc., etc., etc. Oh, and if you have to much content...maybe you have too much content.
3) Follow your own advice: "Test for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors." Try using a proofreader.
4) Follow your own advice: Add a sitemap, strategic links, and some XP style icons - I'm sure that will make your article much better.
5) Learn what usability is - if you don't recognize that different sites have different users with different needs, then you'll continue to speak about usability incorrectly and offer ineffective platitudes and generalities that perpetuate unusable web sites. What you're advocating is that people waste a lot of time and money on activities that do little or nothing to make their web site more effective.

People have much better alternatives if they want truly effective tips for designing usable web sites.

August 17, 2004

SEO Without Usability -- An Exercise In Futility

From a WebProNews article by Scottie Claiborne we get a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) article that talks about why site owners shouldn't simply worry about search engine marketing tactics like Google Pagerank optimization, higher rankings, and reciprocal links. If you do somehow manage to drive a lot of traffic to your site, it then needs to be usable or those visitors will quickly go away and you'll lose the sale (or other business opportunity) you seek.

Here are a few excerpts (emphasis is mine):

"[I]n the same way that the average SEO can spot design or technical issues and recommend or work with a specialist, they should also be able to spot major usability issues and recommend or work with a usability analyst. "

"A usability analyst can walk through the site and spot obstacles that may prevent users from completing their goal. They typically address marketing, layout, technical, and design issues that can frustrate users or even drive them away. When site owners are presented with a usability study in addition to an SEO analysis, they have a better picture of overall "health" of the site and a blueprint for greater profitability, not just more traffic.

"Usability reports are a relatively inexpensive investment that return far more than their cost in increased sales, subscriptions, leads, etc. SEO and usability improvements implemented together can result in dramatic changes in traffic and conversions.

"Search engine optimization is still in its infancy, and is a constantly changing discipline. As the search engines get better and better at rewarding the best/most complete sites, usability will become even more important.

"Many long-time SEOs are now looking at the big picture and working with usability analysts. This ensures that their sites are crawler- and user-friendly along with being ready for sales conversions. Sites that can be found and that are usable as well will also attract links. It just makes sense. The double impact of more traffic and higher conversions makes for happy clients and powerful testimonials, as well as satisfied searchers."

You can find a qualified usability consultant on the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) web site. The UPA maintains a list of usability consultants who are members.

August 16, 2004

User Friendly Gestures
User interfaces: The next generation - Computerworld: "One example is a gesture recognition system developed for the U.S. Department of Defense by Cybernet Systems Corp. in Ann Arbor, Mich. The technology was developed to facilitate silent troop communication during combat. It allows users to stand in front of a camera-mounted monitor and manipulate images, data and application windows by using specific hand movements from a lexicon of roughly 80 gestures recognized by the system. A San Antonio-based TV station is using a commercial version of the product, called GestureStorm, to control computerized visual effects in its weather reports."

Gesture input has received a lot of press lately. You occasionally hear about a specific use of the technology (like in this Dept. of Defense system), with claims of broad future use of gesture input. I think there's still a lot of hype about gesture input, and I think broad usage is unlikely, or at least a long way off - for a couple of simple reasons:

1) Affordances

2) Lack of Standards

Affordance: Affordance is the perceived properties of a thing that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. Gesture input is usually done by moving the hand in a certain way or by moving a mouse in a certain pattern (usually after or while a button is depressed). The problem with gestures is that they aren't obvious. A keyboard or onscreen menu have clear labels - gestures usually don't, and so they place a larger burden on the user to learn, remember and accurately recall the correct gesture for what they want to do. Then they have to perform some small gymnastics - executing the gesture properly so the system can recognize their command. Basically gestures seem to have a lot of the same issues as command line interface input with the added fun of hand gymnastics.

Standards: Who wants to learn different sets of gestures for each application or each platform (PC, cell phone, PDA, etc.)? It probably doesn't make sense to create gestures for low-level functions like copy and paste. After all, how would a gesture be better than a CTRL-C keyboard shortcut? If gestures are used for more complex, higher level functions, then they are likely to be industry, context, user or at least application specific (e.g. "Open a list of all bugs assigned to me" or "Close this order and generate an invoice")

It's possible that standards for gestures at the platform level might be established in the short term (e.g. "Email this file"), but how would they be any better than what we have today?

My prediction is that voice recognition will slowly, but eventually take off in mobile applications. We'll get voice recognition software for composing text messages - only requiring the user to edit the message with a keyboard. Voice menus might also eliminate the need for gesture input in some cases.

Gestures effectively flatten the menu structure - making many or all functions available at once - much like keyboard shortcuts do today. In a similar way (to shortcuts), I think they will mainly be suited for power users - primarily in specialized applications.

The Thumb Generation
The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > All Thumbs, Without the Stigma: "So important has the thumb become on gadgets in Japan, where text messaging caught on earlier, that a certain demographic group is referred to as oyayubi sedai, 'the thumb generation.' Dr. Tenner pointed to findings that young Japanese, accustomed to using their thumbs to send messages, are now using them to do other tasks - like pointing and ringing door bells - traditionally the realm of the index finger."

"Of course, there is some worry, even among users, that speed typing with one thumb could create repetitive strain injuries, like joystick wrist. But the early evidence is inconclusive, according to people who follow the field. ... Professor Katz said the thumb was unlikely to face as many problems as, for instance, the wrist. The reason, he said, is that the wrists have lots of tendons and have not adapted well to the unexpected use of the forearm for typing."