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Claudio Monteverdi

Alexander Johannesen

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Mon, 29 November 2004 13:00:00 GMT

Notice! This blog is no longer updated as such, and the new spot to point your feedreaders and blurry eyes are https://shelter.nu/blog/

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Choosability - the next uncommon sense

The world drags on; The business rules are showing us the way; The organisation swirls onwards in an amorous flirt which at an excecutive level is dubbed "common sense."

Usability practices are usually talked about it terms of making perfect sense. "Naming this button 'blah' instead of 'fiddle' indicates to us that, according to our tests, our customers would buy more products." It is very convincing indeed, and, in another whirl of excecutive glee, it is ordered to put in these new usable stuff.

So, it is agreed upon that the usability focus is a good one. But going from "we really should do X" to actually doing X more often than not ends up somewhere between XX and XXXX. Not always a sexy sight.

The good

The good thing about usability is that we have a word and a best-practice methodology to give people when we want to point to the bleeding obvious.

For years, fights between opinions have rendered workplaces uninhabitual, seeded split between otherwise solid fractions, and created some of the worst possibly products ever known to man. Now, on the other hand, you can call the designer jerk a jerk by saying he doesn't follow usability guidelines. As everybody knows, if you don't follow the standards then you're a misguided individual indeed, and much shame will come to him who claims the guidelines are wrong.

The bad

The guidelines don't cater for individual needs, but are a set of ... er, guidelines. Not rules. Nothing is cast in stone. They are suggestions to what to do to get a better result.

Everybody knows that rules and laws are a thing of a controlling sadomasochistic governance, and as such, in all places where the opressed can fight back a little opression from the opresser, it will happen. If you don't have to oblige to a law by, say, risking death and burning of your CD collection, then good chances are they won't. Guidelines are treated as Laws Light. Wether the opressed are right or wrong in their interpretation of that law is, of course, irrelevant.

The ugly

People are people. If they don't need to oblige to a law, they won't.

"The button labelled 'persue' is better labelled 'explore'"

"Do we absolutely have to?"

"Uh, no."

"Good. What else on the list?"

A small amount of work

The thing is, most usability issues, unless they scratch the surface of stupidity, are easily solved. It is either the case of a simple change or a massive paradigm shifts; a bit of brevity for the former, and don't work for people who wants to do the latter. It is of course the fear of the total amount of little things when they add up that turns otherwise reasonable people into the zombie killer know as a Choosability Practitioner; they choose what to fix based on what they have to vs. what they should fix. Let's dig into a few examples;

Your usability testing comes back and tell you that tabbed resultsets are a terrible utter disaster, neither perfectly seeing sane people as well as low-vision and complete blind people can't work out, for the life of them, what the hell is going on. Do you;

  • Make the tabbed results prettier, or
  • Create a clearer list of results?

A Choosability Practitioner would of course go with the first; better to fix what we already have than to rethink our strategy. We are more concerned about it looking pretty in one page without scrolling than providing information that makes sense and has quality context attached.

Here's another; your usability testing comes back and tell you that the main menu bar has options in it that no one uses, not even when asked to do specific things that had to do with those pages; they did things another way that seemed more intuitive to them. Do you;

  • Relabel those options, or
  • Remove them because the other ways work better?

A Choosability Practitioner would of course go with the first; better to fix what we already have than to rethink our strategy. We are more concerned with functionality than with the simplicity of the user interface. Our customers are special and need all the bells and whistles in the world to do what they want to do. Testing our customers won't change our mind in this important business requirement.

Here's more; your usability testing comes back and tell you that lots of the focus points of your application are too similar for people to tell the difference between them. they couldn't work out the difference between four search interfaces that only hold slight differences to search the same data. Do you;

  • Ignore the problem, because it is a business requirement and part of the functional specifications, or
  • Work hard to merge the interfaces into one or two simpler and easier to use ones?

A Choosability Practitioner would of course go with the first; better to fix what we already have than to rethink our strategy. Maybe we could relabel things to make it clearer what the differences are? Let's ignore that the testing has clearly and beyond a doubt proved that four entrypoints confuses the hell out of customers; the business owners have clearly stated in our functional specification that there are four ways to search our data.

No more!

I've made my point clear; even if lots of people talk about the use of usability testing and guidelines, they are bloody choosability experts who don't really understand what it is all about. They are buzzword compliant, but not compliant with any usability guideline.

Why have we got processes and methods in place that makes late changes practically impossible? Why do we set up workflows and use project management methodologies that just tacks on 'usability testing' at the end of a development cycle, two weeks before launch? Why? Why?!?!

The buzzword is definitly mightier than the sword.

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