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Web usability - the first 10 years

By Richard Whitehand, June 2003

1993 saw the beginning of the World Wide Web from an end-user perspective. During the second half of that year the total number of web servers passed 200. Whilst web sites were very limited both in size and functionality by today's standards, by December several mainstream US and UK newspapers had picked up on the new phenomenon.

It took just one year, and by late 1994 the first web site usability tests were being performed. One of those working with web usability relatively early was the now internationally acclaimed 'web guru' - Jakob Nielsen. In December 1994 Jakob usability-tested the web sites of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Time Warner. He concluded that the demands on ease of use of web interfaces were greater than that of traditional user interfaces, and with many sites to choose from, users would have less patience with them.

By 1995 the importance of web usability was beginning to be seen - usability professionals, whilst still working mainly with 'traditional' user interfaces, began to turn their attention to the web. In Europe, Sweden quickly came to the forefront in web development and stayed there for several years (one example being Internet banking, where many would still argue that Swedish banks are well ahead of those in many other European countries).

In 1996 international corporations were launching country-specific web sites and we helped organisations such as Microsoft with usability input prior to release of their Scandinavian sites. Financial institutions began to see the huge potential of the Internet - unfortunately getting into many financial web sites was a major obstacle for much of the general public, usually due to the overly-technical security solutions. Usability tests we conducted of one early Internetbank prototype revealed that 90-95% of customers would require significant assistance from the 'helpdesk' in order to get as far as seeing their account balance for the first time!

Side note: Our findings and reflections from our first year of consultancy work with web usability were published in a journal article entitled "WWW: Quality, usability & ergonomics" (Robbin Battison & Richard Whitehand, Arbete människa miljö 3-1996, a Nordic ergonomics journal).

By 1997 many organisations were seeing the need to gather user feedback regarding their web sites, though most resorted to online questionnaires and few were collecting objective data. However, by this stage we had conducted dozens of usability studies and were seeing a trend in basic usability issues that remained surprisingly constant over the following years - some typical examples:

  • Usability problem: Difficult to navigate - users can't find information
    Typical reason: Poor terminology, poor navigation design and organisation
    Typical excuse: Our internal organisation is this way, users must learn!
  • Usability problem: Users get confused, don't understand whats happening
    Typical reason: Interaction doesn't match user expectations, poor feedback
    Typical excuse: Stupid users - the helpdesk will sort them out!
  • Usability problem:Text is off-putting and difficult to scan through
    Typical reason: Poor text formatting (e.g. long unformatted paragraphs)
    Typical excuse: We've taken the text from our printed material
  • Some things have changed, albeit with little affect on the end result:

    Usability problem: Users can't read the text
    Typical reason 1997: Poor contrast (e.g. black text on dark red background)
    Typical reason 2003: Text too small
    Excuse 1997: We must use the corporate colours!
    Excuse 2003: We need to fit more on the screen!

1998 saw growing excitement around the potential of Intranets and many organisations had begun projects to move their internal administrative systems into web-based interfaces. The foreseen advantage was often cited as "it will make them much simpler - users just need to click on things!". Sadly, the fact that "clicking on things" was about the only thing standard web interfaces could do was overlooked, and initial attempts at moving complex applications to the web resulted in incredibly slow and cumbersome user interfaces.

1999 and the onset of the new millennium saw a trend towards the merger of web-based and 'traditional' software interfaces. Not only were software applications 'borrowing' ideas from the web, but the better web-based applications were also beginning to follow the interface design guidelines of software applications.

During 2000 most Internet companies more or less reached their peak in terms of size. Larger companies had by this stage taken on usability specialists, and several had usability/UI groups. However, success was very mixed - our evaluations revealed that the same company could produce different web sites with wildly varying usability. This can be explained in part by the rapid rate of growth and mergers of such companies - the understanding of the importance of usability and user-centred design varied greatly from one group to another.

2001-2003 - Reality check for the web?
With the decline and fall of many 'internet agencies', much of the hype surrounding the web also subdued. Greater emphasis has begun to be placed on designing web sites to meet business and user needs, rather than to provide all the latest functions regardless of how (or if) they might be used.

Awareness of the importance of good usability is now relatively widespread. The problem, however, is that knowledge concerning how to reach good usability - through user-centred design - is still relatively poor (see our "Lack of customer focus in e-commerce" editorial).

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