NZ firms need to catch up with overseas rivals on usability, says specialist

More time for usability now development tools are more efficient

If New Zealand developers are to increase exports of software and maintain an edge against overseas competitors then they would be well-advised to catch up on usability practice, says Zef Fugaz, a specialist in usability at Wellington developer Provoke Solutions.

New Zealand ICT has come late to recognising that creating more easily usable systems has long-term payback, Fugaz says. “We are five years behind Australia and 10 or perhaps 15 years behind the US in recognising the benefits of usability.”

Until comparatively recently, local businesses have been focussed on cost and efficiency in their IT systems, he says. "Usability specialists have had a struggle to get them to recognise that it creates a real return on investment.”

He acknowledges that the benefits can sometimes be hard to demonstrate. With e-commerce improved usability is likely to tell in fairly short order on the bottom line; as more visitors find it easier and more appealing to complete a purchase. But for a passive website that just provides information, there is no such immediate feedback, and it may be necessary to interview users in order to gain a measure of the improvement.

For any business interested in deriving benefits up front from usability however, the time to interview users and subject-matter experts is right up-front before development begins. Ideally, says Fugaz, several iterations of gathering views and opinions, prototyping user interfaces on paper and re-interviewing should be completed before coding ever starts; “once you get to the coding stage, it becomes harder to change things.”

Fortunately, as development environments become more robust, reliable and productive, more time can be freed up in the development schedule to give attention to usability and allow it to have its full impact on system design.

A paper prototype of a screen on which the user can directly make alterations and suggestions often speaks more effectively to users than “a thick volume of use cases”, he says. Users understand something more readily if it’s presented graphically, in terms of their own visual experience.

The techniques Fugaz uses were largely developed in the US, by Alan Cooper of Cooper Interactive Design, author of the book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, subtitled “Why high-tech products drive us crazy and how to restore the sanity.”

It begins with defining the various kinds of user who will experience the projected computer system, then looking not only at how they will use that system, but how they use all the related informational resources, so their experience of the computer system fits into a context.

Fugaz came to the computer industry from a background in popular journalism (with Tearaway magazine) then television, which interested him in techniques of visual presentation

Usability design in IT is becoming a science, he says; there are developing principles of good design; but it is still “a living science”. The principles of usability have been established in other areas, from car design to cinema, for much longer than IT. No car manufacturer would think of sending a new model to the production line without extensive consumer testing of prototypes. Parts of movies are similarly often tested on sample audiences and their reactions fed into the way the complete work evolves. “IT has come late to this.”

Now, however, there is a growing community of IT usability professionals. The Usability Professionals Association has three chapters, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Wellington chapter regularly attracts 20–30 practitioners to its meetings. A number of companies, particularly banks, have inhouse usability specialists.

“It’s early days yet in New Zealand, but US and Australian experience prove that usability is not just a fad.”

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