February 12, 2002
A short rant about usability

Dane Carlson, whose weblog is more technical than political, points to this interesting article on website usability. I'm definitely a technical user, so none of the concepts described within were new to me, but it reinforces the notion that many web sites suck from a user's perspective. They suck because they are designed by people who don't know and don't think to find out how people will actually use them.

Lest you think that I'm going to spend my time bashing web designers, I wanted to make the point that usability is an issue in many places, inside and outside the world of computers. Today a coworker and I spent an hour installing a component of some fax server software. We've been installing bits and pieces of this software for awhile now, and at every step there's been something about the install process that makes us swear. Today during the install we had to manually specify a bunch of directories that the program will use. There was no reason why the program didn't have a default set for these directories, with an offer to create them for us. Later, we had to specify a print queue for the software to use. The interface forced us to go through the godawful Network Neighborhood hierarchy in Windows NT, and never gave us the opportunity to type in the path we wanted to use. Unbelievable.

And then there's houses. I've already ranted some about clueless homebuilders. Last weekend we saw more examples of What Not To Do. One house we looked at had a den abutting the kitchen. The wall opposite had a fireplace with mantel and built-in bookshelves on either side. The adjoining wall had two windows, and opposite it was the stairs to the second floor.

In the corner of this room was the one cable outlet on the ground floor. The problem is, where would the TV go? Between the fireplace, bookshelves, windows, and stairway, there was no logical place for a TV. Plus, wherever you wound up putting the TV anyway, you'd either block the breakfast bar or the stairs by putting in a couch to watch the TV. Basically, once you attempt to furnish that room, it becomes useless. We really ragged on the builder for that.

That house and its neighbor, both built by the same construction company, both had finished attics on the third floor. They were intended as rec rooms, for kids or grownups, since there was no obvious place downstairs in either house. Unfortunately, there was no plumbing installed in either room, so you'd always be forced to go downstairs if you need to use the bathroom or want to have a drink. (You could install a fridge, but not one with an icemaker.) What's the point of that?

All of these things have a common feature, which is that the problems could have easily been avoided if someone had taken the time to think about how they were going to be used. Simple, isn't it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 12, 2002 to Technology, science, and math | TrackBack