Saturday, February 9, 2008

The First Usability Review

By this time there were two prototypes of the site, the original and Telco's improved version. So far no formal usability work had been carried out. It was at this stage that the author was employed to provide usability consultancy. The aim was to provide impartial advice, in the form of a review of the work carried out, which would hopefully be acceptable to all parties. The project had reached a difficult stage. The usability consultant is often a sympathetic ear for conflicting opinions or long harboured grievances. Frustration with the site was such that a representative of one of the content providers confided that they would not trust a particular designer to paint their garden shed.

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The benefit of working as an external usability consultant is that one's views are usually accepted, without question, as impartial. If you are professional and tailor your work to the needs of your client, it is not difficult to get respect. However, it is much harder to push through change, when you are not part of the project team. The requirements of the Rural Net project dictated a fast turn around, so the usability consultancy consisted of expert reviews of the site plus liaison with project partners to help facilitate change. Much of this liaison consisted of trying to persuade the technical lead to accept the user friendly changes that had already been implemented by the Telco team.

Expert reviews are a "discount" usability method (Nielsen, 1994), which can be useful when there is neither time nor budget to carry out tests with users. Research has shown that expert reviews are effective in identifying faults, even a worst case assessment believes that they identify 50 per cent of all usability faults, which can make a major impact on many sites (Cuomo and Bowen, 1994). Heuristic evaluations are cheap and they are efficient, so why are they not used more? In the case of Rural Net, even though the problems were identified and the partners were happy with the results of the review, changes were slow in coming. From experience the reason seems to be that designers and developers are not prepared to accept the findings of an expert review (Teasley and Scholtz, 1997). Grudin (1991) says that a problem with many products is that their developers are not "forced to see the pain they cause" and this is the real value of user testing.

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