Frustration and Hope on the Usability Frontier

Is this the age of usability? If so, why am I yelling at my computer? There certainly appears to be growing acknowledgement that usability is important for the success of technological products, yet such products continue to baffle and frustrate the user. Part of the problem is that, while usability has made serious inroads into the product development process, there are still many places where it is effectively shut out. But I believe the other problem is that, the new MS Office 12 ribbon notwithstanding, effective computer-user interface design has largely stagnated over the past decade. Nowhere is this more true than in custom-designed software, which, while it may not be the software used by the most of users, likely constitutes the vast majority of individual applications out there. Your basic menu-controlled form-centered database-front-end user interface is pretty much the same today as it was in the pre-GUI days of the early 1980s.

Why So Little Advance?

Based on my casual perusal of HCI literature and conferences, I think the reason for this stagnation is that most of the research and advances in the past 10 years have focused on the web, which, with UIs being designed by marketers and programmers, desperately needed help. You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to explain that it is important for your web site’s text to be legible, but apparently it was and still is. Also, static web site design presented different usability problems than that encountered with dynamic applications, and that drew interest. Meanwhile, the web being the hot thing, applications were moved to the web, which was almost entirely unsuitable for application user interfaces. It apparently remains to this day just too bloody difficult to make a credit card text box that can handle the concept of the occasional space between the numbers.

New Hope

So, as a human factors professional, the field of HCI has been frustrating for me, but now I see reason for hope. Clever application of AJAX and Flash brings the promise of a truly effective UI for web applications. MS Office 12’s new Ribbon and Gallery controls, while they don’t solve all HCI problems, or even necessarily the right HCI problems, have at least made us take a second look at the classic GUI and ask if we can do better. I see now a great opportunity to bring the effectiveness of decade-old thick-client GUIs to web applications, and simultaneously bring decade-old thick-client GUIs into the twenty-first century.

What This Site is For

Each month, I’ll post in this site a column on where I see human factors problems and solutions in HCI. If I ever appear to ranting, I apologize. If I ever propose a patently impractical solution, I also apologize. I can guarantee that some of my own suggestions will simply not work on users, as I generally lack the resources to actually try them out in a usability test. My goal here is to stimulate thought on HCI, to question old assumptions and standards, to recall old principles and design techniques that have seem to be forgotten, and to encourage, in some infinitesimal way, the academic research and application development community to forge them into advances in HCI.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear about your solutions to the usability problems you have encountered, and I bet other readers would too as they may be facing similar problems. If you try a new idea in one the applications you’re designing, drop me a line at zuschlag at fast dash mail dot org, and I’ll try to put it up here.

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