World Usability Day
Yesterday at Michigan State University, a group of like-minded designers and developers gathered at World Usability Day 2007 to discuss how to make software and web applications better for users.
Web usability as a serious issue that is ignored more often that not, and results in the web being plagued with horribly designed sites and applications. There are too many bad websites and web applications out there, and more are being created every day, because of the lack of focus on usability.
I was lucky enough to join the group in the morning and attend Jason Withrow’s presentation on Designing Usable Healthcare Web Applications. It became obvious early on that Jason is very experienced in this realm, and also that he takes the practice extremely seriously. In Jason’s world, usability is not just an added benefit that increases sales and page-views-per-visit (like my marketing world); it’s a life-or-death practice.
During Jason’s presentation, he ran through many examples of decisions that his team makes to help the user and make them more comfortable when they’re using the application (navigation structure, color choices, default landing page selection, etc).
He also touched on a number of absolutely critical items that can lead to catastrophe. One good example that he gave was printed reports. If a doctor or RN prints a report, and the printed version is separated onto two pages without any notation of it occurring, critical patient data could be left behind. This kind of developer oversight that can occur from not completely understanding the needs of the user could lead to patient mistreatment, or death.
While, listening to Jason talk about his team and the way they work, it was very clear that testing and usability evaluation are key steps in their process. This is something that needs to be worked into the process of every web designer and developer. It’s far too easy for people in our profession to complete a project, step back and look at it and think, “it looks good, it compiles, it runs – it’s done,” without taking much consideration for how the user will interact with it. Jason made a lot of good points about how that kind of thinking will lead to applications that no one wants to use, and that can cost an organization lots of money.
After the presentation was completed, tours were given of the MSU Usability & Accessibility Center. The center is extremely well thought out, completely state-of-the art (powered in-part by the Morae product from TechSmith), and staffed with people that share a passion for usability.
The center is a self-sufficient department that provides usability reports to clients ranging from government agencies, to academic groups, to corporate clients and software design teams. After seeing their setup and hearing their staff speak to their capabilities, I wouldn’t hesitate to go to them for usability analysis (you can find out more about their services here).
It’s comforting to know that people are paying attention to these issues and taking the time to gather and talk about them. It’s my firm belief that if we can make overarching improvements to the usability of future websites and web applications, it will not only make the web a better place for users, but it will have a drastic impact on how our profession is viewed by people in other industries.