Published on November 13th, 2006 | by Rahel Bailie1
World Usability Day: making the world a little better
If you’ve ever wondered whether you were the only person in the world who couldn’t figure out how to use a product, open a package, follow instructions, World Usability Day is a little ray of hope in an otherwise generally unusable world. I’m one of those people; I assume that everyone else must have figured things out without any trouble, and it’s only me who is struggling through a website, software interface, product interface, or other confounding thing. It had gotten to the point where I was reluctant to adopt any new technology or buy any new product because of the ordeal I knew it would be to get it set up properly. (You can imagine how much I dreaded moving house – I didn’t even have confidence that the post office would get my change of address right and, indeed, there was a problem.) But it turns out that I only need to ask others to discover that it’s not just me having problems.
On the one hand, I was delighted. I’m not cursed. There are a lot of other people having the same type of problems with their products, accounts, and so on. On the other hand, I’m appalled. The products and interfaces are so problematic that a substantial number of people within personal network report having trouble? When did the world get like this?
Enter the usability practitioner. It take a certain kind of person to be good at usability work. There needs to be an understanding of mental models and metaphor, balanced with the ability to question every little thing, not to make assumptions about anything, from font to colour, to placement, to word order, to screen order, to medium (is the screen even an appropriate medium)? When something doesn’t work, how do you make it better? How do you even know it’s broken? As is wont to happen in dynamic fields of interest, usability is a strong component of associations such as the Usability Professionals’ Association, the Information Architecture Institute, ACM SIGCHI, the Society for Technical Communication, the Interaction Design Association, the User Experience Network, and a host of others. We are indebted to these practitioners for their tireless work making the world friendlier for end users such as ourselves.
If you’re interested in being part of World Usability Day, you can participate in the global online card sort that is sponsored jointly by STC, CM Pros, WebSort, and GiftTool. If you’re not sure what a card sort is, here’s a little information about this very handy technique.
Card sorting is a technique best known in the usability committee to categorize information into “buckets” for web sites (when figuring out web site navigation), but it’s also been in technical communication for ages – writers just didn’t give the technique a name. Card sorting can be used to help capture and organize topics for manuals, online help, etc. in a quick and easy way. It’s an effective technique to get people to focus on content and not worry about what the TOC or navigation will look like.
When done online, you have virtual index cards that you drag and drop into categories. When done offline, you literally use index cards – you sort the cards into piles, keeping like topics together. If it’s a closed card sort, you specify the categories; if it’s an open card sort, the users decide the categories as they go along.
Happy World Usability Day!