This week an online class on writing for the Web invited me to participate in a chat on usability. Most of the students were editors transitioning from print to net publishing. I didn't know much else about them, or what they knew about usability, so I was curious to see how the chat would develop.
I fielded some of the typical questions I most often hear:
- What is your background and how did you get interested in usability?
- How do you conduct a usability test?
- What are some good introductory books on usability?
As I had hoped, I also received a few unusual questions that were a nice reality check on how people view usability.
What if your designer is hostile to usability? The student described her role as a content expert on a startup travel website. She was hired after the site design was planned. The prototype homepage for the site features a large graphic that takes up all the space above the fold, leaving no room to tease content. Worse, the designer wouldn't listen to objections about the design.
It's tough joining a team mid-project and having to force people to do things over again. But travel websites are tool-focused and functional. Visitors aren't likely to continue if the site doesn't immediately offer them a "scent of information," using terms and forms to hint that they will find what they're looking for.
The scenario reminded me that I've been fortunate to work with designers who understand personas, appreciate wireframes, and see the value of usability.
Along these lines came the follow-up question, How important is the fold line? Many websites are keeping their homepages to one screen. Is it worth it putting anything below the fold on your homepage?
The demise of the fold has been partially exaggerated. From what I've seen, people are unlikely to scroll a page unless they see something clearly relevant to them on the first screen (above the fold). The trend towards one-screen homepages has something to do with Web 2.0 interactivity, which puts the content where people can reveal it without scrolling. It has even more to do with the realization that portal pages, with their arrays of dense links, don't please users as much as focused, single-purpose landing pages, with plenty of eye-relieving whitespace.
How do you design for different audiences, like seniors, teens, leisure surfers, and information seekers? I talked about the different dimensions of users, the use of personas, and how many successful sites give clear navigation categories up front to allow users to segment themselves.
The instructor seemed to get a little impatient when I moved beyond describing large text for an older audience, over to accessibility pointers like the use of alt text. What percentage of the online audience do accessibility tips apply to? she asked. I responded with my favorite "business guy" answer. The Web's most important blind reader is Google, and accessibility aids like alt tags, resizable text, and semantic markup will benefit your search engine optimization.
Later, thinking it over, I would answer it differently. What percentage of the users of a public building need handicapped parking spaces, or rely on the wheelchair ramp to enter? It's low, but it's not zero. Percentage is not the point anyway. One shouldn't have to bribe businesspeople with visions of SEO perfection. It's wrong to exclude people who are partially sighted or have other disabilities, when bringing your content to them is neither difficult nor expensive.
Unfortunately, outside of the usability and web standards community, it's always been my experience that people dismiss web accessibility with a sigh of "we'll get to that in future releases" or "we don't have time to learn about doing that." I thought things might change after the Target.com lawsuit, but from my perspective not much has. In the United States, I believe it will take more lawsuits and government regulation before commercial websites begin to take accessibility seriously. In the meantime, at your company, assume no one but you will advocate for disabled netizens.
I noticed the students were all women, and the instructor called that typical for online learning. I wonder why it might be that men are so much less likely to take classes online.