Archive for the 'Usability' Category

Don’t make me think?

The article Is Google making us stupid? published in The Atlantic examines the way the Web influences the way we read – and think. Many users have the impression their attention span for reading longer articles and books has decreased with the use of the Web, and the author supports this impression with results from neurological and psychological experiments. The way we skim information on the Web has an influence on the way our brain works, i.e.

We can expect […] that the circuits [inside our brain] woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

As a usability consultant, I feel I am not unaccountable for this development. We support the hectic, unconcentrated behavior of our users and proclaim rules for writing online texts quite contrary to what we learnt at school: Not to substitute nouns with synonyms to make a text more varied, not to use figures of speech or word-play (not to mention irony or allusions) because they are imprecise or ambiguous. Not only do we support the behavior the author of the article bemoans, but trends in artificial intelligence which treat terms open to interpretaton as bugs to be fixed. What is at stake is that

In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

So see for yourself if you are still able to concentrate on an article of over 4000 words (more than 5 A4 pages on my printer) peppered with historical examples in the best scholarly tradition. If you can, I’m sure you will enjoy – that it makes you think.


Information literacy vs usability?

Usability is NOT about simplifying things. Developing a user-friendly application does not mean reducing contents or eliminating complexity. It DOES mean omitting unnecessary obstacles and reducing the necessity of being highly computer literate in order to perform everyday tasks.

Usability in its narrow sense, i.e. creating user-friendly access to technical applications and devices, continues to be a basic requirement. Don’t annoy users with interfaces which do not consider recent standards, be they search interfaces or scrollbars.

Search interface for ETH Bildarchiv

Most users find a search intimidating which hides its scope in drop-down menus

The scrollbar at the left isn\'t obvious

Good restaurant, bad usability design: don’t try to be creative with a scrollbar

Applications which are straightforward to use will give users a more satisfactory experience. But they won’t make information literacy superfluous. The increasing amount and seamless access to different forms of (digital) information make gathering information ever more simple. Dealing with this amount of information, however, requires highly developed skills.

Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. quoted from the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education

User-friendly applications do not necessarily enhance information literacy, but they should. They can help reduce complexity by making relationships between data more visible and simpler to understand.

Usability AND information literacy

Search engines and online shops are increasingly integrating features to support their users, e.g.

  • suggesting further search terms (broader, narrower, or related) - search for \

Search for “information literacy” on renders results and suggestions for modifying search or further reading

  • giving context: categorizing results according to clusters or source

Clusty - shows in which clusters and sources \

Search for “information literacy” on shows in which clusters and sources the term was found

  • giving context: including other users’ judgements

Yahoo search results with bookmarks

Yahoo! is experimenting with including bookmarks in search results

These approaches show where information comes from, in which form it is available, and help to assess the relevance and reliability of results. By making this kind of meta-information more accessible, applications can help users develop their information literacy skills.