Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hurdles to Usability

One interesting piece of news: Last week, Usability/User Experience Specialist was named one of U.S. News and World Report's Best Careers. And it had a nice little write-up. Pretty nifty.

I've actually had quite a bit of fun talking about what I do over the last couple of week with my job. I've been fortunate to basically fall into a profession that I really enjoy and feel like I have some kind of aptitude for (besides teaching). However, as with any job, there are hurdles to what you do.

Now, before I elucidate some of these, let me say that I realize that everyone feels like what they do is very important, if not the most important part of the process, particularly a software/application project. I'm under no such illusions; my feeling is that requirements and usability and mockups and prototypes and architecture and development and QA are all equally important. I'm just not sure everyone feels the same way.

OK, the first hurdle to usability that I see is one of perception. Because usability is a growing field and one that doesn't have the same amount of roots that disciplines like QA and coding do, it is very easy for usability to be marginalized in the software cycle. Part of this is a lack of understanding about what usability is. In some ways, I think it's very easy for people to look at us as simply web designers. We get requirements and we implement them in a visually pleasing manner. Is that an aspect of what we do? Yes, it is. However, it's only a part of what we do. We also have to consider navigation: how people will get to the different areas of the application/site. Links? Tabs? Both? And why make the choice that we do? Why use certain colors? In using those colors, have we considered color-blind users? Have we considered the audience and their age and familiarity with the web and "understood" web-conventions?

People and groups that do usability are not simply mock-up factories. The mock ups that we deliver are the easiest piece to judge, but they are merely a reflection of the background work that has to go into making them and the considerations that have to take place.

And I think that's the other issue with the perception of usability. Because people don't fully understand it yet, they reduce it to the lowest common denominator, and honestly, people don't think web/application design is really that hard. Much like people don't think running sound is really that hard. "Just turn it up. What's the big deal?" "Just put a button there. What's the big deal?" And because people think it's easy, they don't always understand the complexity of the situations. It just doesn't seem as difficult as coding, for instance.

Which leads us to the other hurdle: time. In the business environment I'm in, time is money. Especially since we don't bill hours to external clients. As a result, everything must be done in as rapid a timeframe as possible. With a huge focus on deadlines, sometimes ones that seem arbitrary, and sometimes externally driven, there's a lot of pressure to get the mock ups done and on to architecture and development. Which is understandable, of course. The goal is to produce products as quickly as possible to produce more products as quickly as possible. However, the difficulty in that is simply that if you rush a design process, you can marginalize the quality of it. And that doesn't do anyone any good: users, product owners, designers, developers, anyone. While I understand we're in a fast-paced world, some consideration the other way has to be taken as well.

So those are the two biggest hurdles I see to good implementation of usability. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm complaining. I think those hurdles are starting to be overcome in general and I hope that usability continues to grow in prominence and acceptance as a valuable part of the software development cycle.

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