Usability matters

Have you ever worked with an application which was so badly designed, that you could hardly use it? Well, maybe it was not that bad, but i'm sure everyone ran into some piece of software that had chaotic menus, illegible fonts or something like that. Luckily, the internet is full of software that covers the same functions so the user has always a variety of choices. If one application does not satisfy his needs, he can most of the time easily switch to another. Clearly, usability plays a key role when choosing what software people will use. Still it is very underestimated and many designers pay limited attention to it. And this should be changed as soon as possible...

This semester I attended a course about usability on my university (CTU in Prague). It was called "Human-Computer Interaction" and apart from learning a lot of theory about usability we also had to work on bigger projects. I chose project "NaviTerier" (more about it here ), which is a navigation system for blind people - it helps them orientate in buildings, especially in complicated and big administrative buildings like post offices, city halls, courts or even airports. This system is implemented as a voice-guide in devices similar to mobile phones or PDA's. The goal of the project is to make the system more user friendly - and believe me, it's a very hard task. We are creating a system that will be used in situations we have never experienced, therefore we had to consider things that normaly we would not pay much attention to - for example how much information can be told to a person before it will get overwhelming and confusing or how detailed can the information be.

The key to succes was in personal meetings with actual users of NaviTerier. We talked with them about the system, asked them what they did and didn't like. Then we did some usability tests in CTU's Usability Lab (sponsored by SUN) and learned a lot about problems with orientation in buildings. Sometimes the voice-guide was really not helpful, especially when the building's architecture was more complicated than usual.

I know that this is a special case where usability is really very important, but the idea behind all this can be applied to almost any other project - all the theory is good, but the feedback of your product's users is the most valuable resource. When talking about software it's all about well-designed user interface, legible fonts, plain menus and localization and internationalization. Of course that functionality will still be more important, but when you look around you will see there are tons of similar software with identical functions. And one of the things that lead to the final choice of what software will people use is (yes you guessed right) - usability. That's why I would like to encourage you to take our survey about new locales in OpenSolaris - your feedback is really appreciated. Thank you!

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Solaris l10n & i18n, locales, keyboards, fonts and related topics.

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