Usability remains an afterthought

As much as software vendors skimp on QA testing these days, user case testing is being overlooked with even greater regularity.

Have you ever tried to do something with your PC only to discover that you couldn't? It isn't that the software can't handle it -- the function you need is in there somewhere, as advertised on the packaging or in the long e-mail chain of functionality added to an internal app. The problem is that you simply don't know how to find it.

Welcome to a new era in poor usability. As much as software vendors skimp on QA (quality assurance) testing these days, user case testing is being overlooked with even greater regularity. As publishers and IT departments race to meet shipping deadlines, too much of the overall product or project ends up being designed by programmers, rather than user interface experts. Unfortunately, that often means the software suits programmers' sensibilities better than our own.

Where software vendors do pay attention to appearances, the trend is to design flashy interfaces with lots of eye candy. Yet slick graphics don't necessarily translate into a pleasant user experience -- and it doesn't help when developers pile on feature after feature.

"In designing any user interface, one of your key decisions concerns the tradeoff between features and simplicity," writes usability expert Jakob Nielsen in a recent blog post. "The more features, the more complicated the system inevitably becomes."

Ironically, feature creep is coupled with another disappointing trend: the elimination of printed manuals or user guides. Users are expected to understand how software works, right out of the box, even as the user interface grows steadily more complex with each new version.

According to Nielsen, the problem with complex UIs is that the user is seldom really motivated to figure out an unfamiliar program. "To determine how much complexity you can afford in a user interface, you must analyze user engagement levels," he writes. "Do they care deeply, or do they just want to get something done as quickly as possible?"

And how can you tell when users will be adequately engaged with your software to allow you to pile on the features?

Nielsen's advice there is simple. "Typically, users care less than you think!"

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