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Integrated Web Design -- Usability: Drawing Outside the Lines

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Although one-size-fits-all usability concepts provide a good foundation for designers interested in creating usable sites, a great user experience has far more to do with what you know about your users than what the books tell you. Molly Holzschlag shows you how to draw outside the usability lines and create sites that address the true needs of your site visitors.
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As Web design and development become wider in scope, individual topics within it become equally deeper. Usability has become its own depth area over the past few years, largely due to the influence of usability "Thought Leaders" attempting to create better interactive Web sites for site visitors.

But the usability field within Web design has a little problem: It's at odds with itself. On the one hand, you have Moses-on-the-Mountain pundits making claims that there's one good way to address usability issues; on the other hand, you have real-world conundrums born of complex sites. So, it's unclear about which is the right approach to many coming into the Web design and development industry.

The right approach, as this article will demonstrate, is finding a balance between punditry and people. Usability, which is also referred to as user interface design or user experience design, has only one true goal: to help the audience quickly and effortlessly get to what they came for.

Punditry versus People

The usability field within Web design was greatly influenced by Jakob Nielsen. His seminal work Designing Web Usability and Web site (useit.com) have provided very helpful information to those individuals looking for methods to assist them in making more useful sites.

Nielsen's work is incredibly important, and the criticisms I make of his approach in this article are not meant to dissuade you from reading his work. In fact, quite the opposite, as you'll see by the conclusion of this article. I pick him out as an example because he's done so much to influence the field—and because his work is so widely known and available.

I consider Nielsen's approach to usability to be one that uses a broad-stroke approach. I consider him a pundit: He teaches, but he does so by giving opinions in an authoritative manner.

The punditry approach to sharing information can be very helpful for those with more sophisticated critical-analysis skills, but for those without a lot of experience, it can be very dangerous. After all, you shouldn't believe everything you read, right?

The pundit will be concept-driven. He or she will teach concepts that may or may not have come from experience. Concept-driven approaches to learning have pros and cons:

  • Broad-stroke approaches help solve a wide range of problems but may miss the needs of many individuals within the audience.

  • An authoritarian voice is not necessarily an authoritative voice, meaning that learning from pundits requires the learner's ability to decipher what is opinion based on ideas, opinion based on experience, and factual data.

  • Pundits usually espouse a one-size-fits-all concept, such as "always underline links." Once again, this approach may solve a broad question, but doesn't go deep enough to address individual needs.

  • The punditry approach requires less work for the less-experienced or motivated learner who will follow the rules set out by the authority—and not necessarily question that authority).

  • Learning from an authoritarian rather than authoritative voice means more work and research for the highly motivated learner.

The other type of learning found within the usability arena is audience-driven. This is the "people" part of the equation, and the job of the usability specialist in this approach is to study his or her audiences very closely and understand the needs of the individuals within the audience. So there can't be a one-size-fits-all approach because the individual need may result in a custom modification.

The people approach has pros and cons, too:

  • Specific-stroke approach helps solve very specific problems within a site, but may miss the needs of the broader audience.

  • The responsibility immediately shifts to the usability specialist insofar as how he or she provides solutions to problems. The information comes from observing the audience, not from reading a book.

  • The audience-driven approach requires more work, more time, and more money. Although not a con by definition, work, time, and money are always at a premium for people, and this can be considered prohibitive.

As you can see by this short comparison, the two approaches offer important information and methods, but they are both problematic.

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