Making the web a friendlier place


24 Jun 2003

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What is an internet usability consultant and how did you end up being one are two questions that Pat Fehin (pictured) must be well used to hearing. In his case the answer to the second question is: a Masters degree in Applied Psychology from UCC, 25 years with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as head of their European usability labs and four years doing EU-funded research on the subject. He is now head of usability with Ennis Information Age Services, the IT services firm that was spun off after the Ennis Information Age Town project ended in 2001.

Firms offering usability services – there are just a small handful in Ireland – face two main obstacles. The first is that many organisations have no idea what usability is about apart from some vague notion around ‘ease of use’. Ireland is some way behind the US and the UK in terms of awareness and benefits of usability and, in order to expand the market, usability consultants like Fehin are having to educate users about the concept, its benefits and the cost savings it can bring.

The second problem is that usability is seen as non-essential, especially now that the economy has slowed. In a situation where companies are questioning the value of e-commerce or even having a website in some instances, the case for spending money on a little known concept such as usability is becoming increasingly difficult to make, Fehin acknowledges. “It’s definitely a harder sell now.”

Fehin believes that the way to sell usability is to emphasise the return on investment it can deliver. According to Fehin, usability can also deliver some real cost savings, especially if applied to private internets or intranets.

“In large organisations an intranet can lead to huge cost savings if done correctly. A lot of research is going into what will motivate people to use an intranet rather than hard copy as an information source,” he says.

Usability tests are conducted both on-site and at the EIAS office in Ennis, which is home to a recently installed usability lab packed with one-way mirrors, cameras and other technology, which measure how people behave when they browse websites.

EIAS has done usability studies in a range of Irish organisations including Revenue Online Services, Property Partners and, most recently, the County Councils. “We found a lot of inconsistency between them,” says Fehin, commenting on the findings of the Councils’ research. “They didn’t comply with design guidelines in terms of the way information was displayed. Also, many of them were too text-heavy – the text was not written specifically for the web, which made it difficult to read. As I recall, none of them would have met the Usability Guidelines.”

The Usability Guidelines were drawn up by a consortium of groups and individuals, mainly in the US, who were concerned that internet sites were excluding significant numbers of people. The guidelines are based on looking at the various ways users access websites and then ensuring that a website’s content is consistent with these. For example, there should be a text alternative to graphics to accommodate the visually impaired readers.

Other web design no-no’s include poor architecture and PDF files. It seems that we read 25pc slower on the web than we do in hard copy so bulky PDFs can be a big turn-off. Fehin’s advice is that if you must put a PDF on your site, make sure there is a ‘quick print’ option clearly visible so that readers won’t feel they have to do battle with an online brochure.

The problem with accessible sites is that they tend to look bland. In fact, blandness is a positive virtue. On his website, Useit.com, Jakob Nielsen, the ex-Sun Microsystems engineer who is seen as the father of useability, trumpets the fact that there are no graphics, explaining how these interfere with the site’s accessibility.

Of course, blandness is hardly going to be a big selling point for most organisations, so those that wish to offer a fully featured site complete with graphics, animation and other cutting edge tools are encouraged by usability proponents to create a ‘accessibility compliant’ sister site – a plainer version that users can link to from the main one.

Fehin stresses that usability is not about putting restrictions on web design but is about looking at it from the user’s perspective. In fact, his feelings about web usability extend to technology products in general, which he feels too often bear the stamp of the creative team and not the end user.

“Product development today is driven by technologists – they get a technical idea and they have little idea of how it will be deployed by end users so many ideas don’t get the expected return on investment. What we need is a user-centric approach to product development. Most technology is not nearly as effective as it could be because it was developed without due consideration to how it might be applied.”

Finally, what advice does he have for those planning to launch or relaunch a website? “Keep it simple, have a good architecture, use terminology the reader is familiar with, help the user as much as possible and, finally, test regularly and often. The earlier you do the testing, the cheaper it will be to fix the problem.”

By Brian Skelly