Are Usability Experts Any Use?

I’m sure you’ve encountered the usability Nazis… err… “experts” in our field. Like Industrial Age time and efficiency men, these folks are sometimes called in to apply scientific methodologies to evaluate our work. With stopwatches, video cameras, and keystroke recorders, usability experts try to measure how people use Web sites (and other interactive work) with pinpoint precision, measuring time on task, clicks to completion, and all those other wonderful quantitative data points that seem to make so much sense to so many people.

A site is deemed usable if it meets stringent usability guidelines. It’s unusable (therefore, a failure) if it doesn’t.

It’s hard to argue with these folks. After all, we’re talking science here, right? More than three clicks to get to a piece of information? Bad! Users must scroll? Failure! Too many “graphical design elements”? Strip ’em out! If it doesn’t measure up, it must go. If it doesn’t measure up, it’s wrong.

Are we measuring the right thing?

With an ongoing push to increase return on investment (ROI), create measurable results, and curb unwise investment in online efforts, usability testing has become increasingly important in site development. Fueled by industry fears, dot-com excesses, and ever-so-logical proponents, such as the ubiquitous Jakob Nielsen (and scared by statistics such as “users fail 35 percent of the time when using Web sites”), marketing managers fearing failure look to usability gurus for answers. They’re getting them. They just may not always be getting the right answers.

Why? With the rare exception of sites about nothing more than retrieving information (e.g., government Web sites that exist to serve up property tax data, federal forms, or tax code), there’s more to the Web than just data on pages. Most Web sites we marketers are involved in must engage users, build brands, entertain, elicit emotion, delight our customers, and provide information. Those first qualities — engagement, branding, entertainment, emotion, and delight — can’t be measured by clicks and stopwatches. They’re subtler than that. The qualities that make people want to come back can’t be timed, clicked, or tracked. They work, or they don’t.

We can’t blame the usability people entirely. Their discipline has only recently been applied to the Web. For decades, “human/computer interface experts,” or “human factors engineers,” tested software designed to accomplish specific tasks. Word processors, spreadsheets, accounting programs, and visualization tools aren’t supposed to be fun; they’re tools designed to get a job done. No one’s supposed to laugh out loud while using Microsoft Word (animated paperclips aside), and nobody’s supposed to change her life based on an accounting package (unless bankruptcy is looming). A software package is a tool that helps get work done more quickly and efficiently. In this context, usability is vital. If you can’t process words efficiently or figure out how to sum cells in a spreadsheet, the program’s worthless.

The Web is different. Rather than simply a place to accomplish tasks, the Web is a vital conduit for communications and experience. Choosing an online store isn’t just about selection, price, or search function. If it were, would look just like Google.

Instead, brand loyalty and buying decisions are made more on the intangibles that differentiate one site from another. Quality and usability are the table stakes. But it’s design that really matters.

If you have doubts, you may want to check out this article about how design affects user behavior. Market research firm Genex found 65 percent of users refuse to buy from badly designed sites. A measly 4 percent say price is why they buy from one place or another. Surprisingly, 30 percent said they wouldn’t shop at a retailer’s offline store if the online experience was bad.

Online-consumer-advocacy group Consumer WebWatch reports similar results. Nearly half of those surveyed point to design as the most important factor in determining credibility. However, the survey points out design can also detract from a site; if it’s too slick or looks like it was designed by a marketing team, credibility can suffer.

All in all, what makes the Web different from any other communications medium is it’s the one place where design and usability must converge. It’s a place where, ideally, both sides of the brain are engaged. A good Web site (or online experience) must provide valuable functionality while engaging emotions and aesthetic senses. In short, successful sites (those people actually want to return to) must be usable in the traditional sense as well as compelling.

How can you test this? If you’re developing a new online experience, ask yourself what task you want to test. Then, apply the correct methodology to determine whether it works.

Defining the actual task takes creative thought about the experience’s real goal. Often, the task you’re after isn’t just the nuts and bolts of functionality. Rather, the functionality becomes a means to a larger end. With Amazon, the surface task may be buying a book. But the larger goal of the site isn’t to sell a book once. It’s to keep you coming back, encourage impulse buys, and lock you in as a lifelong customer. All of which is hard to test by measuring clicks, time to completion, and shopping card functionality.

Great online experiences aren’t just about unfettered design or functionality. They’re about both. Sites must be usable just to stay in the game. Great design is what leads to differentiation — and success.

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