published in The Jerusalem Post, April 2004)
Usability and Your Web Site
While preparing for some home remodeling, I've been examining
kitchen appliances. Evaluating the various designs has been
educational. It showed what happens when convenience for the
end-user gets sacrificed for style. This mirrors problems
inherent in the design of many Web sites.
Let's illustrate with an extremely simple appliance: a built-in
gas stovetop. There's relatively little operative difference
among the dozens of styles locally available. All have between
4 and 6 burners, whose flames heat pot bottoms. The pots rest
on brackets. Knobs control the size of the flames. Materials
are enamel and stainless steel.
But in an effort to prompt a buyer to select a particular
product among many, functionally identical, others, designers
try to make each stylistically unique. The results can be.interesting.
At least with stovetops, some standards are mandated by law:
they cannot be composed of flammable materials. And I didn't
come across any with the control knobs located on top, which
might look "pretty" in a showroom but at home would
necessitate extending your arm over the pots to adjust the
flames. On the other hand, in many models the knobs were arrayed
in a column to the right of the burners, which is inconvenient-to-dangerous
for lefties. (So I guess those designers aren't concerned
with "a mere" 15% of the population, although it
seems to me that this decision would translate into a lot
of lost sales.) There were also some unusual burner configurations.
Sometimes five burners were squeezed into the space normally
allotted for four. Wow, for the same price you can cook more
food simultaneously. Except that all the pots have to be proportionally
smaller in order to fit. A similar problem exists with configurations
that include arranging the knobs in a visually attractive
arc rather than the ordinary straight line: you're sacrificing
pot "real estate" for a stylistic frill.
Similarly, many Web sites use stylistic flourishes that undermine
their usefulness for the end-user. Keep your target audience
in mind for all design decisions. Are many potential visitors
on dial-up? Design pages that will load quickly. Will people
be revisiting your site periodically? Avoid use of frames,
which would prevent them from bookmarking (adding to their
Favorites list) particular pages. Navigation should be intuitive
and consistent site-wide; and if you use and if it uses techniques
like drop-down menus, make sure to include a text-only alternative
that can be used universally.
Ask about your designer's ability to implement Web standards
as suggested by the
W3C. These standards are to Web sites what safety laws
are to consumer goods. Building a stovetop from beautiful
oak wood is a bad idea even if it matches the kitchen cabinets
to perfection; using it could burn down the kitchen. Nothing
as dire can occur from visiting a non-standards compliant
site. However, many "cool" features (for example,
Java applets) can cause some browsers to crash, or even necessitate
rebooting the computer. Flash sites can be difficult to bookmark,
slow to load, and time-consuming to navigate.
Try also to address issues of accessibility. Although vision-impaired
visitors, or those using very old computers or outdated browsers,
may not comprise a large proportion of your audience -- why
exclude them? (In the US, accessibility is being mandated
by law. Other countries will be following suit, and monetary
penalties may apply to ignoring relevant legislation.) Find
a designer who makes accessibility a priority.
Footnote: After ordering my stovetop, I received a free phone.
Appealing colors, easy to dial -- and lightweight, which makes
it easy to move. This lightness, however, also guarantees
that when you place the phone on a desk and lift the receiver
to your ear, its very short cord dangles the body of the phone
like a yoyo. Not a good design, no matter how appealing the
Do you have any questions? Contact
me and I'll try to answer them in upcoming articles.
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