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Usability – is it what we think it is?

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Computer Associates has done some extensive research on what exactly users want when it comes to so-called usability, writes Phil Howard of Bloor Research. Some of the results, which CA wanted to find out about for implementation within its CleverPath Portal product, turned out not to be what was expected.

The most surprising result that CA discovered was that drag-and-drop is not as intuitive as we all think it is. Of course, this may be fine when it comes to IT developers and those that are used to IT in general, but it turns out that many users are not as happy with the idea of dragging windows around a desktop (yes, I am not talking about any very sophisticated drag-and-drop here) as we all thought. Indeed, so strong was this finding that CA has implemented a choice of interface for CleverPath Portal. You can either have a traditional drag-and-drop windows type interface, or you can use a more Yahoo! style approach.

Some of the other discoveries were not so earth-shattering and mostly concerned terminology. For example, CA found that users are much happier with the term "locked" when you check out a document or other content than the traditional "checked out". Similarly, "duplicate" was found to be preferred to "copy", presumably because the latter does not have the same clear implication that the original version is left intact.

Of course, a number of other companies have implemented usability features that one might not have thought about. For example, there are a variety of products that have eliminated the use of double mouse clicks.

Perhaps the biggest trend towards increased ease of use as the user perceives it, is the move towards the adoption of Section 508 compliance. This is the US government standard for providing disabled access to portal and other environments. Obviously much of this is specific to particular types of issues, for example, supporting black and white options for the colour blind, but there are also facilities that could have wider application.

For instance, how many of us have not failed to replace our mouse batteries, or otherwise had a rodent problem, and had no idea how to proceed? Much easier keyboard control of the desktop would be a boon not just to those targeted by Section 508 but to all of us from time to time.

The problem is that we all think we know what usability means. But we all view it from our own perspectives. The trouble is that I, and probably most of you, are working with technology all the time, and we make assumptions about how easy it is, and what constitutes improved usability. That may be reasonably when you are considering what would be easier for an application developer, say, but it isn't when you starting having to think about inexperienced end users. It is probably a long time since any of us were in that position and it is simple to underestimate the complexity of the technology for those that are not familiar with it. The question is: how much more are we taking for granted?

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