In April 1997, Scott Butler from Rockwell Software posted the following message to an Internet mailing list of usability specialists. I thought it was a good summary of the similarities between Web design and GUI design, so I got Scott Butler's permission to repost his message here.
Scott Butler Writes:
I still don't get it. So far, people have told me the following (I'm paraphrasing because I don't have time to cite properly):
They say, "The web is different because it's used for so many different tasks. It's not like Excel where we know what people are going to use it for: budgets, graphs, etc.."
IMHO: It's not different than Excel because we don't even know what people are going to use Excel for. Some EE friends of mine used to use Excel to track intermediate values in self-adjusting algorithms. They picked Excel because it was the best tool they had for the job and it was really easy to use. I doubt that Microsoft included this use case in their usability testing, but it was still easy to use. I'm sure that my friends' mindset for this task was significantly different than it would be if they were using Excel to make a budget, but they were able to use the tool effectively. Point being, principles of good design seem to be pretty robust.
They say, "The web is different because it's used by so many different kinds of people."
IMHO: Microsoft seems to be able to make products that are equally usable (or unusable if you want to take that stance) across a wide spectrum of users. Point being, usability testing for diverse audiences is nothing new.
They say, "The web is different because it involves more complex trade-offs in design and development than traditional software development."
IMHO: A not-so-complex web trade-off I heard about recently was, "You can do anything you want as long as you don't touch the advertising space."
As GUI developers, we make trade-offs every day: designing for VGA monitors, curtailing design/development because of schedules, designing for worker populations with minimal skills. From what I've seen, the web has trade-offs of its own, but I'm not sure they are much more complex -- just different. But then, it seems that every product I get involved with is unique in some way.
They say, "We can't use traditional guidelines from hypertext or help because a user I talked to said that help is no help."
IMHO: Hmmm, it sounds like that help wasn't designed or written very well -- we design our help products according to guidelines and then we usability test them. If you'd like to learn how we ensure that our help sytems are usable and helpful, drop me some email. The larger point is that there are lots of good design principles out there and they are disregarded or poorly implemented all the time -- that is the very reason why our profession exists!
They say, "The web is different because it's a total online experience. It's more than interface -- it's art."
IMHO: Icons and splash screens are more than interface too. They impact user perceptions and they are art. That's why we have a graphical designer on our Human Interface Team. We take a multidisciplinary approach to product externals because we believe that usability alone cannot adequately account for the user experience. This goes for any product and any user population, not just web sites.
They say, "When I design a web page, I try to consider the way most people will probably be using it."
IMHO: This makes web sites unique? I'm speechless.
Perhaps I'm oversimplifying, but I work in a world of limited resources. These resources are deployed for specific purposes and part of my role is to ensure they are effective. A rough definition of "effectiveness" that we're pretty comfortable with is that the target audience is able to accomplish primary tasks and they'll continue to be our customers when they are through working with our products.
My clients have never told me, "We're designing a web site, but we don't know who we want to use it. We also don't know what we want them to do with it. In fact, we don't even know what information we're going to put up there so we can't even begin to guess what kind of people we'll be attracting." If a client were to say that to me, one of the most valuable services I could provide them would be to help them identify their target audience and their primary tasks. This alludes to another key role of mine: to reduce risk and uncertainty during product development.
From the posts I've seen, most authors are spending a lot of time focusing on what they don't know. What I'd really like to know from these utesters is the following: Given how little (you think) you know, how would you guide a development team through a web site design and development effort if you were called upon to do so?
Perhaps actually leading development teams is not a matter of concern for some of the utesters who have posted. For me it is -- hence my interest in focusing on what we know and can use to get products out the door that will be better than if we had just wallowed in our (perceived) ignorance.
I hope I'm not misinterpreting Sophia Goan, when I conclude with some words of hers. To me, they seen very relevant to the discussion we've been having.
"Frankly, as I look at technology and new mediums and methods. I think of it in terms of paradigm shifts where individuals approach new items with a specific mindframe. And it is only after time when they overcome the paradigm they were stuck in are the able to take previous knowledge, methods, etc. and apply them."
Scott A. Butler
Human Interface Team, Usability Coordinator