by Thomas McCoy
Usability is political. The travel agent battling with an online booking system. The pensioner struggling to use an ATM. The telephone caller lost in the voice-prompt-maze of a computerised answering system. These people exemplify an underclass of end-users forced to interact with technology during their working and private lives.
In general, people have no choice over the technology they use. This is decided by the ruling class, which comprises software and hardware manufacturers, corporations, and government agencies. Even where one would think there might be some choice, as in the case of a person buying software for their home computer, the market is so strongly dominated by a handful of players that no real choice exists. Factors such as the software being used at work and the software previously used are likely to supplant usability issues in the purchasing decision.
Where people must use off-the-shelf software at work, the decision on which product staff will use has generally been made by the purchasing department. Where people must use in-house developed systems, the chance of the programming team engaging in meaningful dialog with the end-user is small. Where the users are not employees of the organization providing the system (e.g., the ATM user or telephone caller mentioned earlier), there is even less chance of them having input into the design process.
Witness the ineffectual attempts of consumer groups to force banks to lower their outrageous transaction and account-keeping fees. If a battle like this cannot be won, what hope would customers have of pushing through improvements in ATM user interface design? Would they even know what to ask for?
I remember the day my sixty-year-old mother first attempted to use an ATM to access her pension funds. After she inserted the card (which was difficult with her arthritis) and managed to key in her PIN, the machine responded with the intimidating “please select your transaction type.”
At this stage my mother could no longer cope; the layout of the green phosphor screen, the use of words like “transaction”, the impatient beeping of the machine, it all became too much and I had to operate the device for her. If the designers of the ATM thought a little more about the different types of users who would be relying on the machine, they might have incorporated a friendly spoken voice prompt that said “if you would like to withdraw money, please press the red button”, rather than flashing technobabble messages onto a screen.
End-users have little power to influence the technology imposed on them by the technocrats. As a former technocrat who has worked in applications development for over fifteen years, I know this to be true. When we developed in-house applications, we almost never spoke to the people who would be using our systems on a daily basis. They were considered too unimportant, too low down in the food chain. Instead, managerial types briefed us on what the users needed. Although the managers had good intentions, and we all sat down, drew dataflow diagrams, and worked through what the system was supposed to do, we never spoke to the real end-users about how they would like it to function.
In most organizations, usability is given the same level of corporate importance as system documentation. And the biggest reason for this, I believe, is the IT skills shortage. Now, more than ever, employers are looking to maximize the productivity they obtain from their “overpaid” IT staff. Politically, this productivity is measured by the speed at which new systems can be released. Anything that threatens this “productivity,” such as usage-centered design, usability testing, or system documentation, is quickly cast aside. Because complex systems are viewed as smart and people who have difficulty using them are viewed as dumb, there is no compelling political reason to worry about the end-users.
Sadly, the end-users have usually subconsciously accepted this doctrine and often blame themselves for difficulties with awkward user interfaces.
In this context they are often reluctant to report their problems, particularly after a few belittling encounters with impatient “help” desk staff.
As members of the usability community, we have an enormous political battle facing us. We have to convince the technological ruling class (e.g. Chief Information Officers, senior IT executives, project leaders, user managers, etc.) of the importance and value of usage-centered design and usability testing. We have to make them understand that usability is not something to be thought about at the end of a project (when it is too late to make substantial changes), but that it must form an integral part of the whole systems development lifecycle. We have to push for compulsory usability and HCI subjects to be included in every computing curriculum.
The lack of commitment to usability in almost all organizations is reflected in the limited career paths for usability professionals. They are usually paid less than the technologists and have limited promotional opportunities. In some organizations, usability activities are being scaled down and staff moved into broader roles, such as writing user documentation. When IT budgetary cutbacks are required, the usability staff are an easy target because the political fallout of ignoring usability is minimal (after all, nobody listens to the end-users).
As well as promoting the value of usability to managers, we need to get the IT practitioners on our side. The art and science of usability in this country is too young for most organizations to employ specialist usability staff, even on a short-term basis. However, the quality of IT systems could be substantially improved if IT practitioners were aware of basic usability principles and conducted even rudimentary usability testing.
The future for usability in Australia is bright. As the population of end-users becomes more and more computer literate, its expectations rise and the underclass gains the confidence to be more vocal about its frustrations. While this will probably not lead to a revolution in which technologists are lined up against the wall (although some systems I have used made me wish for this), through bodies, such as Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group (CHISIG) and Usability SIG, we can hasten the process of having usability recognized as a key aspect of systems development and give voice to an underclass of end-users that has been ignored for too long. And my mother might no longer be anxious about getting her pension money from a beeping, green-screened monster!