Why I know we need usability studies

I was talking to a friend today. A friend that emails, blogs and uses web tools like ebay and paypal. I said, "hmm, that's strange, my browser isn't working. Twhirl is working though." I meant to imply that since my browser was frozen, I was checking my internet connection to see if it was an internet or Firefox problem. To which he responded, "My Firefox at work is working." Sensing a fundamentally different understanding of how things worked I asked a bunch of questions. (From my viewpoint, I had already established the internet was working, so his Firefox could have no bearing on my Firefox, but obviously he saw things differently.)

Turns out, he views Firefox as an internet service, not as an application that displays web pages through an internet connection. The fact that twhirl had internet connectivity did not mean that my other services would work. And all my other services were Firefox services because they all ran in the browser. He saw those services as Firefox services, not web services.

He did not seem to think of Firefox as an application. It was a web service.

So I'm not saying his view is common. But I'm also guessing that if I polled 100 random people on the street, many would not see the world my way and a few might see it his way. As we figure out how the desktop, the browser and the internet work together to deliver a seamless user experience, we need to keep in mind that most of our users will not see those as three separate things. They may see them as one thing or ten things, but they are unlikely to understand how they all interconnect at the technical level.

(And I do think the desktop, the browser and the internet have a lot of work to do to deliver a good user experience. Keeping my mail in the cloud is awesome, using Gmail in a browser window is not so awesome. It should act more like a desktop app, allowing me to open up multiple windows without extra toolbars, stash things on the desktop, etc. But that's a topic for another post.)

So that is why I'm fundraising for a usability study.

Photo by Votemann.

10 Replies to “Why I know we need usability studies”

  1. The only thing keeping me from switching from gmail to thunderbird 3 is proper conversation threading.. It finally uses built in service profiles so I don’t have to read up on push and pull mail protocols and stuff, so I might consider, you know, using it.

  2. I guess that we’ve already lost the language war, but your email isn’t “in the cloud”. It lives on Google’s servers, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies, and Google allows you to access it via a web browser or IMAP. We aren’t helping people understand things better when we use terms like “the cloud”, which obfuscate rather than clarify.

  3. Out of curiosity, how is this a usability problem?
    It seems to me it is more a technological ignorance issue. Your friend knows what each program does and how to use it. He just doesn’t understand how the technology ties together.

  4. But he’s a totally happy and successful user without understanding how it ties together. Him and millions of others.
    We need to make sure it works in a way that continues to be useful and intuitive to them.

  5. You’re right. Gmail isn’t in the cloud.
    And I don’t help ambiguous terms like cloud when I misuse them …
    (We also need a better word for desktop while we’re at it.)

  6. He just doesn’t understand how the technology ties together.
    And doesn’t care. That’s why usability studies are useful – because people who don’t understand technology don’t think about it in the same was as those who do.
    The solution generally isn’t to reduce the ignorance, because that’s a losing battle from the start. The solution is to build things such that it doesn’t matter if they’re ignorant. People only have so many brain-cells to spare – why should they waste them on learning how their computer works, if that’s not something that interests them?

  7. Is an awareness problem, if you pool 100 random people, probably the majority will tell you that the internet is that little blue “e” icon in their desktop, it is called “Internet”.

  8. Its great that you’ve brought this up, a few of us have been discussing a way to achieve this kind of thing easily and cheaply.
    I’ve even spent some time working on a web based usability testing framework which is wireframe based. Check out the first hackish test here;
    It’s something that has weighed heavily on my mind over recent months. With the wireframe testing system shown the idea is to verify or dismiss a theory. I don’t want to reveal the theory I have because it would ruin the test but please email me privately to discuss this further.

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