A recent post by a local authority web officer was fairly frustrating for me, as it perpetuates several myths in usability, as well as calling into question my motives.
We had been contracted to provide a usability and accessibility helpdesk for local authorities. This was early 2006, and when it came to the end of the contract, even the critical (of Government) Public sector forums only had this to say:
a telephone helpline was made available alongside a raft of good practice guidance and an online forum to “encourage the knowledge sharing”. Local Directgov claimed that by May, 234 local authorities and 12 government agencies had signed up to the helpdesk. As far PSF is concerned, we’ve heard – amazingly – almost nothing but good words said about it.
(Before then being critical of the service stopping).
However, Paul Canning (who I believe was a member of the forum at the time) now takes umbrage:
The answer, written by Nomensa I assume, a usability company contracted by Whitehall, claims that:no usability guideline is black and white, and the context and users have to be taken into consideration.
Whoever wrote this has a vested interest, pushing their expertise— are they really saying that someone like Jakob Nielsen doesn’t make basic, apply to all, guidance? That ordinary web workers have nothing to learn from Nielsen or any of the others in my links list? That only filtered and packaged government-approved usability guidance is kosher?
I did a double take, as that sounded like something I would say. In fact, I did. The localdirect.gov.uk site has published many of the forum questions and answers as a usability FAQ (I didn’t write all the answer though).
Generalised usability guidelines
If you read the whole section on that FAQ, you’ll see I did indeed point out the best source of general usability guidelines I know of, the research based set from usability.gov. However, I still standby this:
“no usability guideline is black and white, and the context and users have to be taken into consideration. To which Paul says:
are they really saying that someone like Jakob Nielsen doesn’t make basic, apply to all, guidance?
No, not where people are involved.
Jakob Nielsen has done much to publicize usability, but you do have to take care when things are simplified too much, or assumed to be sacred. For example, he used to say people wouldn’t scroll (mistake 6), but this isn’t the case anymore (e.g. 22% scroll to the bottom in this sample, and most scrolled to some degree).
In any case you are dealing with percentages, statistics, and optimising. Not clear guidelines that work for all, which is what I was trying to suggest. There is only one proven ‘law’ in pschology: Fitts law (the time taken to aquire a target is proportional to the size of the target and distance you start from the target). Everything else is interpreted.
The person in the field I respect the most, is Jared Spool, and for a while they were printing t-shirts with “it depends” written on them, because it does. Any usability finding has to be in the context of who, when and what. It’s actually in the definition of usability (emphasis mine):
the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.
Spool provides a good example of the problem with assuming there are broad, infallible ‘facts’ in usability:
It is often stated as if it was almost a law of nature that the faster pages download, the more usable the site was. But when we actually compared the usability of sites to their download times, we didn’t see any correlations. None, zero, zip. If this “fact” was true, we should’ve seen something.
When interviewing candidates for a usability position, I tend to ask their opinions on common usability myths such as 5 users, 3 clicks and 7 +/- 2 menu items. I’m actually looking for these things:
- Relying on data, not opinion. (I.e. knowing what the data is really saying).
- Knowing what their own opinions are based on, and being able to justify it dispassionately.
- Knowing which methods suit different situations.
Many sites would benefit from quick internal usability testing at various stages of the process, that is only to be encouraged. But you do run the risk of finding out what you want to hear, or using the wrong tool for the job. Again, it depends. If people are asking for general guidelines to use, it’s a good indicator that help is needed with the methodology.
Anyone can claim to be a usability expert, just like anyone can set up a web site. But like web development, there is a need for professionals.