Monday, February 11, 2008

Early Problems: Whose Mental Model Is It, Anyway?

In the case of Rural Net problems arose early on with the development of the original interface to the web-site. This was based on user actions, with a button bar whose topic heading represented verbs rather than nouns.

Consequently, the interface was centred around a number of actions - enquire, submit, pay, notify and monitor. These actions could have a number of interpretations that were entirely subjective and dependent on the users' interpretation of the actions that they wished to perform. For instance: in the case of a user checking their local Council tax bill, would this be an enquiry, monitoring a payment, submitting a payment or paying? It assumed a particular mental model for users which was in practice impossible to predict. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that none of the content providers were in a position to provide the specific functions promised by the action style topic headings.

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The content providers were not happy with the original action-based interface. They anticipated that their end users would be put off by the use of language such as: "Citizen's View" and "Technical Annex". Structuring the site in this way also made the assumption that people would not visit Rural Net out of idle curiosity but with a clear goal of what they wished to achieve.

The original interface also included a personalization process, which gave the impression that new users must go through a registration procedure to access the site. Given that the site was sponsored by local government and the police, asking visitors for personal details could be seen as intrusive, although in fact, registration was optional and the intention was to help people viewing the site from public access terminals to save their favourite options.

The site also included a map style interface which gave access to geographical information in the region. This application had to be downloaded - a slow and tedious process which most users would give up on. The application itself was idiosyncratic and difficult to use.

Finally, there was no adequate help or site map and the search facility did not work. Given the obliqueness of the site's content headings this made Rural Net extremely difficult for the average user to navigate.

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