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Monday, May 14, 2007

Software Usability

I remember playing bumble-bee soccer (see footnote below) when I was a young kid. I was never around the ball, I was always looking for the position that needed to be filled, usually somewhere between the swarm and the goal. When I look back at most of the activities that I have been involved in, I see the same pattern being repeated, I always look for the most important task that is being neglected. Sometimes that has meant stepping on somebody's toes, other times I have been seen as a savior :).

Within the last couple of years, I have become more and more interested in software usability. Based on my soccer experience, this is probably because the company I currently work for has never concerned themselves with usability (or rather, the CEO and president were the usability experts, period). We never did usability testing, other than a demo to them. In fact, we never even bothered having a review process to make sure areas with similar functionality functioned similarly. Within the last year we were purchased by another company that alleges they are more focused on supporting existing customers than on attracting new ones (the difference as I understand it is more focus on the user and less on a feature checklist).

In my career I have come to the conclusion that most software sucks. In fact, it seems that the quality of software is inversely proportional to the price. Although the field of software usability is not new, it doesn't seem to be getting as much attention as it should (what could be more important than the user interface?). The benefits of creating usable software are well known. For the end user the benefits include increased productivity, reduced training, improved data entry accuracy, and reduced anxiety over fighting with bad software to get the job done. Their are also many benefits to the software company such as increased sales (to both new and existing customers), ability to charge a premium for the software and/or service, and decreased customer support costs. Although there is a cost to usability (you have to commit to it as a company, train developers, testers, and managers, and perform some type of usability studies which should include talking to real customers), based on what I believe to be true (from reading and limited experience), the benefits seem to far outweigh the costs.

DOET-2002cover I have recently read the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. This seems to be the beginners handbook of usability. It lays the groundwork for understanding usability from a designers perspective. Although Donald is an academic (professor of cognitive science at the University of California), the book is well written and understandable even for those without a PHD. The book was originally published in 1988 and was recently reprinted with few modifications. One of the things I enjoyed most when reading his book were the predictions he made, some of which have come true already and others we still have not reached yet. If you are interested in learning about usability, I would recommend starting with this book.

The next book in my queue is The Usability Engineering Lifecycle: A Practitioner's Handbook for User Interface Design (Interactive Technologies) by Deborah Mayhew. This book is a bit larger and seems to go into a lot of detail on how to actually do usability. Of the few pages I've read so far, it seems like a good book :). Of course, I also read many different blogs that frequently include posts on usability. One of my favorites is Jeff Atwood's blog, Coding Horror. Jeff writes often and well and has become a minor celebrity within the software industry for posts such as The Programmer's Bill of Rights. He frequently writes posts on software interface design and usability and has a number of people who comment on his articles. He has also been featured on some popular (for developers anyway) net casts such as .Net Rocks.

Bumble-Bee Soccer - When young children play soccer, it resembles a swarm of bees around the soccer ball.


Peter said...

Good to see more attention towards usability. One book I can certainly recommend is Alan Cooper: About Face 2.0. It is quite a read but once you are through it you'd have a solid foundation.

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