Usability – interview with Alex Imrie

June 17th, 2009

One of the best presentations I’ve heard at this year’s EclipseCon was given by Alexandra Imrie on the topic of usability. Usability is sometimes abandoned altogether due to budget constraints, often addressed as a hasty afterthought, and almost never viewed by developers as a necessity. In this interview Alex looks at the usability angle from the end user perspective, highlighting its importance to us, the developers.
alexandra_imrie_thumbTell us a little bit about yourself

I’m Alex Imrie, and I work at BREDEX GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany. I have various roles at the company including Marketing, customer demonstrations, training and support as well as documentation and conceptual design for some of our software. I also do some testing. The unifying part of all these roles is that I represent the user and customer side – I have a non-technical background in linguistics, but a good knowledge of how to work with our software from the user’s perspective, so that makes me a good advocate for our users and customers!

What does usability mean to you?

The main aspect of usability for me is that software should help the user to do his job, not make the job harder! The application as a whole should be consistent in its work-flows and allow the user to work in different ways (and each way should be as simple as possible). The software should adapt to the user, not vice-versa. I also believe that most applications shouldn’t involve the user in internal technical aspects. The user should be able to work with the software without knowing how it ticks in the background.

Even if a piece of software is well written in these terms, we need ways of helping new users with the software. From context-sensitive help to tutorials and examples, it should be easy to find out more about the application without having to read the whole manual or attend weeks of training. Obviously, training may be necessary for some applications, or to learn how to work best with an application, but it shouldn’t be necessary from the very outset.

Why should developers be aware of usability aspects of the products they’re creating?

I think the very simple answer is because the products are meant to be used by the users! Whether the users themselves are developers or not, we always need to bear the target group in mind when an application is being designed, or when new areas are being added. Features are all very well and good, but if the application is hard to understand or hard to use, then users will be alienated and annoyed. In terms of commercial software, this can lead to dissatisfied users – and word of mouth about bad software can spread quickly.

Can usability be sacrificed for internal products that people will have to use in any case?

On the contrary, I think that internal products can be a good way to practice making software more usable. After all, internal feedback can be quickly incorporated into the product and developers can really get the chance to see how users think. Internal users are still users at the end of the day, and deserve to have an application that will make their life easier, not more frustrating! Another way to think of this is in terms of the support costs your team will save by not having to answer “basic” questions about how to use the software. In smaller companies especially, making usable software can be conducive to good relations between developers and users. Making usability a priority internally brings value for external products. The design process will no longer separate functionality from usability – all functions will be designed to be usable right from the start. The benefits are endless, really.

Why is usability at best an afterthought, and in most cases non-existent in business applications?

On the one hand, it’s often very difficult to see things from the user’s perspective. Developers think like developers, and rightly so. It’s just very difficult to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and forget all you know about the internal workings of something. (This is the same reason that developers aren’t necessarily good as functional testers!).

The other issue is time and costs. If usability isn’t explicitly considered at the beginning, it can be harder to add later when the need arises. With deadlines for features and releases, it can be hard to make the decision to lose a feature to gain usability. I think that too much time is often spent working out how a feature should work technically, and not how the user should be able to access it, even though the two aspects actually belong together.

What are the most common usability errors that you see in popular applications?

One thing I notice quite frequently is inconsistent behaviour. Like some delete actions requiring confirmation and others not. Or options being available in a context menu in one area, but not in another. This also affects menus where certain entries are completely missing instead of just disabled when they are not available. That can be confusing!

These are also quite minimal things that can easily be changed. I like knowing where I am in a workflow – what are the prerequisites, and what must I do next. I appreciate progress dialogs for so I can see how much longer I need to wait, and which reassure me that the application hasn’t crashed. I also find it difficult to work with applications that only offer one way of doing things. I’m a fan of using keyboard shortcuts, so a mouse-only application can be frustrating.

Do we need to facilitate an emotional connection between the users and the ap-plications?

I think so. I think that a user should feel “led” by an application, and should feel safe in the knowledge that the application will not let him or her do anything horribly wrong. One concept we use quite extensively at Bredex is the idea of the “first 15 minutes”. I think this can be where a large part of the emotional connection comes from. At the very least, these first fifteen minutes should be the easiest, and there should be no way at all of running into trouble. Layout and graphics can play a large part in making an application simply look more friendly, and I’m particularly fond of welcome screens, like those in the Eclipse framework, to present important information in an accessible way at the start up of an application.

Do we still need manuals and organized help in the age of wikis, blogs, forums and mailing lists?

Yes, I believe we do. The idea of the documentation as a wiki is certainly appealing, but I think there is still a place for manuals. Wikis are certainly more dynamic, but this can be a problem – with manuals, you can always tell which version of a software the manual is for. For me, the appeal of a manual is having one single source of reference for all of the possibilities of a piece of software. As well as describing tasks, a manual can also introduce best practices and can be directly integrated into the software as context sensitive help to save trawling through a forum or waiting for an answer in a mailing list. Media like mailing lists and forums certainly have their place, but I see them more as a place to ask very specific questions, whereas the manual should deal with the various tasks you can do with the program and the concepts of the software.

No documentation, and the users will be upset. A lot of documentation and nobody will read it. How to find the “sweet spot”?

If I knew the answer to this question I’d be rich! Seriously, I think that a task-oriented approach to the documentation is the best way to go. For each task, pre- and post-requisites as well as related tasks should be linked. This makes searching for the piece of the documentation considerably easier. I also think it’s important to reduce the amount of explaining the documentation has to do. If the technical writer is spending days trying to get a section right, it’s a sure sign that the application itself is too compli-cated. If each and every text field has to be explained, that’s a hint that the labels for the text fields aren’t very good. Documentation is necessary, but it shouldn’t become an issue of “XYZ doesn’t work like ABC, so we’ll document it instead of fixing it”.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One thing we have found works well for us in making sure that usability is considered from the outset is to have the technical writer(s) (and also the testers) present at the design and concept meetings. These are usually the people who can tell you “that’s not how it works in other areas” or “that’s not clear enough” or even “why not do it another way”. By not having the same background and perspective as the developers, they can offer valuable advice for the usability of an application.