Today’s headline is courtesy of a real estate agent’s advertisement on my favorite radio station, SONiC 102.9 FM Edmonton. The agent diligently repeats their web site address a couple of times and invites us all to visit and see their listed properties. Being ‘detail oriented’, it makes me a little crazy every time I hear the ad and have to listen to the cheery closing line ‘See you on the Internets!’. There is, of course, only one Internet…not a whole bunch. And, yes, I am well aware there is a less polite way of describing those who are detail oriented…but I am trying to keep this blog family friendly so won’t be using ‘that’ word.
A LESSON FOR US FROM A REAL ESTATE AGENT
So am I writing today to pick on poor real estate agents and radio ad copy writers that accidentally pluralize ‘Internet’? Nope, I am writing today because each time I hear the advertisement it reminds me that not everybody on the planet is ‘in’ the information technology business. This is important to remember for everyone involved in making or changing applications in any way: project managers, software architects, developers, quality assurance staff, documentation writers, and technical support staff.
You can design and build the most fantastic application in terms of functionality and rock solid quality. Without being usable by the intended audience, however, such an application is just as doomed to fail as one that is sparse in features and bug-ridden.
How can you ensure usability? First, it is important to understand that usability does have some core characteristics that apply across the vast majority of user audiences. These are such things as following Windows conventions for the placement of menus, buttons, button names, button actions, etc. In this regard, it is very important to NOT reinvent the wheel, i.e. stick with what is out there in common use. Folks will thus have a head start on understanding how to run your application.
Second, usability beyond those core elements does change from user type to user type. An application to help developers find memory leaks should thus have a user interface that differs materially from a bank teller application.
WHAT IS THE USER LOOKING FOR
So the core conventions are easy to determine and follow. It is the special nuances that your particular set of users are expecting that are the difficult part to discover and implement. You will need to determine who your users are going to be, what area of expertise they have, the terminology that is common among them all, and the lowest common denominator of information technology competence.
Each industry has its own ‘language’–terms not used anywhere else, or meanings for words that differ from how we use the same words outside the industry. If your application is to appeal to these users and also to ease their learning of your application, you must be aware of these terminology needs and make use of them–or at least avoid any ‘faux pas’ by using words in wrong ways.
LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR
When you are looking to determine the lowest common denominator of information technology competence, you are not looking for the single most technologically challenged user in the group and then building the user interface to accommodate for them. Your application would drive everyone else crazy in trying to be too simple to run! Remove the outliers from consideration and look to where you find a strong cluster of users at the lowest level of information technology competence. That’s your target of where to make your application usable with user interface design.
MULTIPLE WAYS TO RUN
Finally, if your user clusters are varied in industry and IT competence, you can always bundle different user interface packages to suit each cluster. Investing the time to make your application as usable as possible to each different audience you wish to sell to will pay off well in increased sales, happier users, and reduced technical support needs.
Hey, do you think ‘See you on the Internets!’ has any change of dislodging ‘All your base are belong to us.’ from fame and fortune?
See you on the Internets,
Dean Whitford, B.Comm.
Chief Operating Officer