Usability, accessibility, design and interactivity are concepts which we professionals of the Web world are accustomed to reading and hearing about, but: How many times are they expressed in a clear context?; How many other times are we confused by them?; Are they opposites or are they capable of collaborating between one another in order to improve the user’s experiences?; To what point are they important?
What is clear is that during the brief but intense history of the Web, we have already witnessed several generations or currents which have given priority to one concept above all the rest…, or they have not given priority to any at all. Furthermore, based on the typology of each web site, we can know which grants greater or less importance to the usability, the design or the accessibility.
According to the entertaining, but nevertheless rigorous Classification of Van Duyne, Landay and Hong (1) , the history of Internet has witnessed two generations of “mantras” or “holy grails” in which the programmers, designers and very often the clients have totally believed in:
The First Generation: ““Do it and they will come”
This is the early period of the Web. The simple fact of existing on it was enough to make one believe that the avid users of the highly interesting knowledge which we would pour on to the Internet would overcome any obstacles or difficulties. The times of “Anything goes”, of “That menu is complicated (unintelligible in reality) but: It is really attractive, isn’t it?, and also: It works more often and faster than this other one …”. They were times when the desperate user did everything he or she could in order to get into the new digital world. If someone could not find something on a web site, the user was to blame and never, by God, the geniuses who designed or developed the Web! Fortunately, these times are over.
The Second Generation: “Sell it on-line and they will come”
A first stage of maturity of the Web emerged. The dynamic pages for interaction between sellers and buyers, companies .com, e-commerce web sites with a billion versions came into being. “Who would not pay because: I can organize your wedding without your having to leave your house? And to buy a car, a house or the Crown Jewels? Let’s do it before others do… Let’s invest in whatever is necessary”. Good times and good wages became the result of working on Internet. Unfortunately, the situation did not last long. The failure of most of these complicated and very expensive web sites can be explained in many ways and least important is NOT the fact that almost no average user could easily interact with them, surf through them, much less BUY from them!.
The Third Generation: “The User’s Revolution”
The user or “client” hhas taken on today much greater importance. If we want our Web site to be visited and used often, and to furnish us with profits, whatever the form these profits or benefits may adopt, we should create a setting which would take into account the user’s experience. If we do not do this in this way, the one who is in control, who is without a doubt in this case: the user, will forget all bout out Web site in the time it takes to make a simple click.
This true revolution is closely related to the success of Internet, with the maturity of the user and with the fact that this rather long conflict between usability, accessibility and design is being resolved in a rather satisfactory manner for each one of the sup0porters of these concepts.
The usability and aesthetics (or what we call design) need not be in conflict with one another, but rather they should complement each another. The third side of this triangle which is Accessibility should interact with the other two under equal conditions but they should especially be linked to Usability. In other words, a beautiful or well designed web site can be more attractive still if it is usable, and especially if it is accessible.
Many Flash designers will protest when they read this. Creativity? How can I transmit the advantages of this or that product without showing marvellous images and lavish graphics in constant movement?
The answer is another question: And what about the user? Do we really think that a Web or mini Web which is not strictly for advertising purposes (whose field is very different from that of the presentation of its contents) is still attractive, the third, fourth or tenth time we visit it and it shows us those fantastic images or graphics which after their initial impact, cease to impress us. If we want to grant significant contents or functionality to the user, let us make his or her experience useful for the task at hand, intuitive, friendly and simple. And this should also be the case for the largest number of users possible. (2)
In any event, simplicity is a positive concept in design in and of itself and it has been proven that a pleasant and attractive interface is easier to use as long as that beauty is combined with the necessary clarity and simplicity in its composition. Let us go one step further, and make that interface accessible; this is something very easy to do, if we have already dared to make it usable.
The harsh reality vs
the user’s revolution
Very well. One thing is now clear: Can anyone still doubt that it is better for a web page to be usable and accessible rather than it not being so? Surely something about which we have been theorizing for almost a decade (3) will have become accepted little by little by now.
Unfortunately, there are still more Web interfaces which for technological or economic reasons or simply mental laziness continue to ignore the importance of the “use” and grant free reign to whatever the designer or programmer wishes to offer.
Let us refer again to Van Duyne, Landay and Hong (4) in order to enumerate what they consider the styles or methods for outlining the design of a Web page when it is first being created and we will see if we can identify our own.
Design centred on the Company: Surely all of us will remember that page of a multi-national company whose surfing structure was dominated by the internal structure of the Company. “If our activity "stands" on three legs, the Web does too, and if one of them is almost inoperative or internal, I do not care …”. This way of designing an interface or constructing a structure of contents based on how the Company is organized is surely very interesting for the employees themselves.
Design centred on Technology: Comanche Territory. Anything goes here if it is new and no-one has seen it before. “Why not include a virtual visit with an active x with stereo sound from the assembly hall and the meeting room? The component is new …” If the user is not interested in the technology but is interested in our product, it would be better to seek another channel in order to access it. We are a company which knows all about New Technologies and we should prove it.
Design centred on the Designer: More commonly known as an egocentric design. “The client does not know what he needs, but I do. And of course, let’s not even talk about the user. It is necessary to educate him at the same time that we show him who is indeed the best!” This way of proposing a Web interface, based on incredible technical difficulties and originality, will reap in an overwhelming amount of congratulations from our colleagues; but it is probably condemned to failure.
In comparison with the foregoing ways of understanding the Web interface, the third generation of Web pages has wanted to come up with a Design centred on the User. Even though it seems unbelievable, its initial principles were first laid out way back in the decade of the 80s in order to make the software interfaces usable by the clients: the use of Patterns or Anti-Patterns of the Design to resolve a problem which was presented to us several times in similar contexts, the continuous feedback with the potential user (not just at the end of the project, but from the very beginning and of course the understanding that no user is a programmer or a designer even though he may adopt that role) and a whole series of preliminary measures to ensure that our interface will experience fewer and less significant problems in relation with Usability. And if it does encounter programs, they will be resolved at the very beginning of the project, when it is less expensive to do so.
The difference between one or another choice can be and will almost surely represent the difference between the success and the failure of our project. No matter how hard we try to the contrary, the User is the one in control.
(1) “The design of sites, patterns, principles, and processes for crafting a customer-centered web experience” Douglas K. Van Duyne, James A. Landay, Jason I. Hong.
(2)…a good definition of Usability.
"The International Day of Usability? Accessibility? But, what is all of this about?" Belén Gallego Puyol, Consultant on Usability, Accessibility and Architecture of the Information on Banking and Atos Origin Insurance.
(3) “Design Patterns for Integration (I): Introduction “ Yusef Hassan, Published in G4:USABILITY on Tuesday, 16 August 2005.
(4) “The design of sites, patterns, principles, and processes for crafting a customer-centred web experience” Douglas K. Van Duyne, James A. Landay, Jason I. Hong.
Antonio Castaño Romero