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The online experience

The online experience

The customer is everything in the online experience. This seciton of the site will be dedicated to the work I do when I am not travelling around the world. But for now, it will have to remain somewhat empty. Except for a thought on the usabiltiy Guru himself.

Going beyond usability

There once was a time when the interior design of a new flagship car designed by a prestige manufacturer was based around kowtowing to the managing director. Ensuring that he was comfortable was the ultimate goal. It did not matter that, despite the formidable performance and cutting edge aesthetic styling of the car, it was notoriously uncomfortable to drive. The bucket seats were designed around a six foot man with a larger than average girth.
Move forward, out of the sixties and into the nineties and we saw the word ergonomics being used in automobile marketing. The interior design of cars was becoming a selling point, and ensuring driver comfort and safety was championed. And today, 'ergonomics' comes as standard. It is assumed that the seat will be adjustable; that the driving position will be designed for the 95th percentile of drivers. For not to do so is to not only to sell an inferior product, but also face the wrath of litigious salespeople who suffer muscloskeletal disorders because of the poor design of their workspace- their car interior.
Today car interiors are all about enhancing the experience of driving. Starting with low-tech solutions such as heated seats, right through to in-car guidance systems, ensuring driving pleasure is becoming the goal. And so it will be with the design of interactive services. We move beyond usefulness and functionality, usability will become the norm, and we will start to design for pleasure.

Let us consider the evolution.

In designing interactive services the first question we must ask is of the service itself. How useful is it? Does it fulfil a consumers need, is it something that consumers want or will grow to want?

We then design the functionality; we identify the functional specifications that allow the service to respond to the consumers needs. This is where much design ends. It is fit for purpose, but little else. It allows me to complete a task, but annoys and frustrates me in the process. Many banking web sites come to mind. Functional, but no joy to use.

Customers become used to functionality, yet this is not enough. They now look for products that are easy to use. As I began to argue in this article, ergonomics is very much a buzz-word in product design. And in designing interactive services our clients are now asking for Information Architecture to be a component of the project. Usability is being taken seriously.

Once we become used to products that are easy to use, they become the norm. Our satisfaction is not just about avoiding physical or cognitive discomfort; it becomes much more. We look for a new dimension in design, one of pleasure. What makes a web site memorable is not so much it's usability, but how we relate to it on an emotional level. Does it give us pleasure? Do we return because it engages us, does it become a conversation amongst our peers?

And this is where the self styled usability guru Jakob Neilsen is getting it wrong. In striving for usability he is forgetting the personality -and pleasure- inherent in web design.
Jordan in his book "Designing Pleasurable Products" (2000: Taylor and Francis) states it eloquently: "…usability based approaches are inherently limited. The reason why they are limited is that usability -based approaches tend to look at products as tools with which users complete tasks. However products art not merely tools: they can be seen as living objects with which people have relationships. Products are objects that can make people happy or angry, proud or ashamed, secure or anxious. Products can empower, infuriate or delight- they have personality".


Take a door as an example. A door is useful- it serves its purpose, dividing two rooms. Put a handle on it and it becomes functional. Put a label on it that says 'Ladies' and it becomes usable (i.e. reduces errors, speaks the users language) But still it's a door. Be creative, make the sign really explicit, use an image, colour, make the door shout out its purpose and it makes me smile, I like the look of that door. It becomes truly engaging. An engaging toilet door. Engaged.

But I digress.

What does this mean for usability experts? I think for a start we can spend more time listening to and learning from creative resources from the design agencies we work with. It is easy to criticise their designs for being too creative, forgetting about usability. But we should harness their ideas, work alongside them to create designs that really engage. We need to work on the information architecture of sites, ensure the navigation, labelling and content schema are intuitive and easy to use. And leave the Creative to produce pages designs that challenge our thinking; that re-write the rules of the inverted L of page design. Work alongside them providing input, but rather than being prescriptive of the page architecture from the outset, let them go create. Explore rich media if it is appropriate. Push the boat out. And then start testing the ideas with customers, with colleagues to develop page designs that are both engaging on a pleasurable level as well as being usable.

In his recent alert box on DVD menu design, Neilsen criticises them for their "fancy, animated complex menus" and "lack of standardization". But this is what makes them so exciting. They are an extension of the video experience. The pleasure of interactivity would be diminished if they all had the same interface, the serendipity would be lost.

The same goes for web design. In designing usable sites we should remember that this should not preclude creativity. Understand who the customers are, what their motivations, needs and expectations are. Designing for a young 'wired' audience will allow a different approach to designing for a less net-savy older audience. Design around customer intentions and remember you can never design for all. It is the accepted norm within human factors that products should be designed so they for 95 percent of the people for whom they are designed for. For products this may be related to anthropometrics, in web site design it may be related to browser compatibility.

And one last thought. Can poor usability be good is pleasure is in abundance? Designing an intentionally poor ergonomic experience that has shocking usability can reinforce the total product experience. To think of the automobile industry look at the Lotus Elise. And think about what the customer wants. The Elise driver doesn't want to be comfortable. He wants to feel every bump in the road, he wants to feel the car's cockpit wrap around him. The discomfort is part of the sports car experience. If he wanted comfort he would buy a production line Ford.

So next time you are working with the client in drawing up the functional requirements, designing the information architecture, the taxonomies, the hierarchies, the site structure; creating the GUI, producing page wire frames, creative mock-ups, paper storyboards and high fidelity prototype, remember that the goal is as much creating a quality product that gives pleasure as to ensure its functionality and usability. And knowing what pleasure is depends upon knowing the customer.

© marc mcneill 2002