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September 29, 2004

Is User-Centered Design the Future of Software?

Went to another interesting talk this week, sponsored by the usability excellence group at Microsoft.

This presentation was by Eric Schaffer, CEO of a company called Human Factors International a leading (or perhaps the leading) usability research company.

Eric, who identifies himself as PhD, CUA, CPE, was there to tell Microsoft that the future of computing was human-centered design (and no, I have no idea what CUA or CPE mean. In computing CUA is the Common User Access, and CPE is a telecom term meaning Customer Premises Equipment. I would suspect that in this context CPE means Continuing Professional Education, which is a term from accounting. CUA might be the Catholic University of America, or it might not. Anyway, where was I?). This is not particularly shocking given what his company does, but his argument was pretty convincing.

User-centered design means that you consider the needs of the user first (the key word being "first"). The design of software should be obvious to the user, not to the designer; the structure of an application must fit the user's schema, the deep mental model they have for how things work. This will minimize the visual, intellectual, memory, and motor load on the user. Although once you understand the user's mental model, it is possible that you can move it in a certain direction if there is a critical concept that they need to internalize.

Microsoft certainly does usability studies, but they are done to test out a design, not as the first step in creating it. In fact, Schaffer says that even organizations with good human-centered design processes can still design hard-to-use software, if they have the wrong people (meaning, the technical people) doing the research. It's a problem of psychophysics: we can't see the user's point of view if we are too embroiled in our own point of view. It's like trying not to think about something. He mentioned one company that had its database designers go out and talk to users. They reported back that every user liked to think of their data in terms of the database design.

The solution to this, according to Schaffer, is to have about 10% of your development staff be usability professionals (a category that includes UI designers and graphic artists, as well as usability researchers). Only when this occurs will usability be completely institutionalized (he lays out his arguments in a book, not surprisingly called Institutionalization of Usability).

These days a lot of software design, and a lot of bad software design, involves web pages. Schaffer claims that 85% of usability has to do with the navigational structure of a site. He points out that there are only about 10-15 different kinds of page –- high volume container, intranet portal, wizard, search, simple form, document, etc. -- and he recommends that sites have page-level standards for each of these, so that individual page designers can use the appropriate standard document and ensure that navigation, colors, page layout, button text, etc all have site-wide consistency.

He says that the 1980s were the decade of hardware, the 1990s were the decade of software, and now we are in the decade of usability. This might give Microsoft pause, since we are a software company. Microsoft has an opportunity to ride this wave, but needs to realize that the current user interface of all of its software is suspect and may need to be redone, or at least have another layer larded on top. And I don't think that Microsoft practices what Schaffer preaches, which is separating the software designs from the usability studies. When Bill Gates proclaims that unlike an iPod, Microsoft-based media players will support video as well as audio, because that's what users want, I can't help but think of the database designers I mentioned earlier, and their blindered view of user's needs. Yes video is cool, but in a situation like this, I think I trust Apple to have a better idea of what people really want.

Schaffer say in this era of usability, there will still be brilliant hardware and software designers, but "the majority of people will just be getting it done." In his view, as software becomes more like other design disciplines, programmers will become less like architects or construction foremen, and more like welders and electricians. You wouldn't have a building without them, but nobody pays much attention to them.

If you've got $117 burning a hole in your pocket, Schaffer also recommended the book Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment by Mark Blythe, which delves into human computer interaction from a more academic perspective.

Posted by AdamBa at September 29, 2004 09:30 PM

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