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Opportunities 2006 - Usability

2006 is going to be a year where the creators of web technology have the opportunity to make their services better in terms of integration, usability, and usefulness.

Ken Yarmosh, Looking towards 2006

UsabilityWeb products and services must be dead simple to use

Have you ever tried to show a non-blogosphere, non-techy person how to subscribe to an RSS feed? It’s quite a challenge, especially if they are still struggling with their e-mail inbox. And of course, it requires a preliminary conversation about what RSS is and why they should use it. Despite its name, RSS is not simple.

Mozilla Firefox, Flock, Opera, and Apple’s Safari already have native RSS support. What that means is that users have the ability to subscribe to a feed inside their browser. There is no need to copy and paste the RSS feed URL into their RSS reader. No need to first get a bookmarklet to do a quick subscribe to the feed. No need to find and select the other piece of software – the aggregator – in order to consume the RSS feed. Native support of RSS pushes the technology towards simplicity and greater usability.

If a web product or service requires a conversation prior to its use, chances are it wasn’t designed with the user in mind. Frederico Oliveira, a design expert, puts it as follows:

Usability, user experience and information architecture need to be present from the start of development and design.

Fred highlights an important idea too – usability relates to both development and design. Most companies seem to think about usability only in terms of design. This leads to extensive “how to” sections, describing in detail how to use their service. My experience has shown me that if people can’t just “get it”, they are not going to use the service. First impressions are everything and if you turn someone off right away, the likelihood of a second chance is slim to none (seems Mike Arrington would agree).

Focusing on usability does not implicitly require a complete overhaul of a service. For example, yesterday I wrote about rolling your own Firefox Search Engine with Rollyo. This “new” service actually already existed but in a different form. Previously, users could go to their tools section once signed-in and add a Searchroll to the Firefox Toolbar. Now, however, Rollyo has streamlined the process by: 1) Not requiring a user to create an account. 2) Removing the “Searchroll” Rollyo jargon in place of the more widely known “Firefox Search Engine” terminology. 3) Automatically adding the engine to the Firefox Toolbar at the end of the process. 4) Wrapping all of that into its own page.

When it comes to usability, companies really need to have their target user base in mind “from the start of development and design.” They need to make their products and services dead simple to use. As I reflected on 2005, I noted that “adoption is tied to intuitiveness and knowledge.” There is no better way to develop an intuitive service than to focus on usability.

Stay tuned for the next opportunity – usefulness.

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