Web Usability panel

I just got home from a presentation organised by WebGuild which was a panel discussion on web usability.  Met lots of interesting people of course, but the highlight for me was of course hearing Tom Chi, Jeremy Ashley, and David Nelson talk about their experiences with Yahoo, Oracle and Adobe respectively.

First of all, it didn’t click with me that it was the Tom Chi, from Ok/Cancel, until he let loose his very dry sense of humour (I still enjoy sending my favourite comic to my engineering buddies).  He had some succinct and to-the-point answers to some of the questions for the panel which gave some great insight into his experiences, particularly with Yahoo and Microsoft.

I found it very interesting that when asked to define ‘ideal’ usability (in a round-about way), all three mentioned the ideals of ubiquitous computing – invisible, ubiquitous, effortless.  “You don’t even think about doing it.”

Another thing I agreed with was the changing face of traffic sources.  SEO and SEM is now king, while link sharing and ‘homepages’ are falling by the wayside.  I notice that in my own site traffic.  I have one site in particular I started in 2002, and until 2005 90% of the traffic was from link-sharing.  now 90% is from search engines.

I was happiest though, in answer to my own question, to hear the depth of ethnographic study at Oracle, which as a technical/engineering company I honestly did not expect.  Jeremy talked about the use of studies to gauge the integration of enterprise software in the grand scheme of things – such a holistic view of the user’s work practice was really refreshing.  Go Oracle!

Finally, I was intrigued that Yahoo! also makes use of ethnography (I didn’t expect it given the difficulty of observing casual users), specifically to build a connection between the design team and the users.  Tom discussed bringing a multi-disciplinary team so that different stakeholders could see the user as a tangible reality, not an abstracted target.  Creating a multidisciplinary team of which all members are involved in user studies is something I wrote about in my thesis as the benefits are it “destroys assumptions” (as seen with Tom, Jeremy and David), but for smaller projects also provides an opportunity to educate the user in turn.

All panel members agreed that ethnographic studies provided constant surprise.  I couldn’t agree more, which is why such close observation it is one of my favourite methods.

One thing this reminded me is that I have been somewhat lax in is getting the engineers further involved in the usability tests that I conduct.  While I make a live feed available, and encourage them to watch, next time I will have the key engineers come sit in for at least part of the session.  It really is quite eye-opening to see what the user really thinks of what you created.

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