July 1998


Web Usability

by Amelia DeLoach

What do "usability" and the "Web" have in common? Well, they're both buzzwords which means they're ideas whose times have come. Of course buzzwords, or terms which tend to put a spin on concepts used in a professional context, typically appear in sentences where the words appear but a meaning doesn't result. For instance:

Our Web developers identify opportunities where usability techniques can be implemented to improve overall ease-of-use.
Sounds good, but what does it mean? Who knows? The chief flaw of the example sentence exemplifies what's going on in Web development: We're talking a better game than we're actually playing because we need to address the idea to establish and retain credibility. What we actually implement may differ.

Look at Webmonkey. It's a 'zine that teaches the nuts and bolts of Web development through its easily navigable structure that interlace hip interfaces. On the down side, those without good eyesight will likely squint to read the text that appears in a too-small font. At least I did. When viewed at the default setting on my PowerMac at work (the appearance on WinTel machines may differ), the "small print" used throughout this site prompted a headache to ensue after 15 minutes of reading and surfing. Methinks that the experience of this 30- something Web developer and technical writer would pale in comparison to someone belonging to the bi-focaled Baby Boomer set. And yes Virginia, not all Web developers are Gen-Xer's.

Then there's C-Net, another 'zine that teaches, instructs, and informs Web developers on how to get their work done and design for the end user. Its usability problem from my end? Too damned slow. And I'm accessing this thing using a standard-issue Ethernet connection from work. I don't even attempt to access it from home on my zippy 486, complete with a 14.4 modem, that I purchased back in the days when Lynx was the browser. Heck, I no longer attempt to access this site from work during the early morning hours before the network slows to a crawl. After all, "time is money."

Of course, no 'zine is perfect. This one isn't without its detractors either.

Hence, when standard-bearing publications preach "usability" but don't or can't put it into practice, it's clear that we're in the "idea phase" of this "idea whose time has come." The November issue of CMC Magazine will explore this idea of usability (i.e. human-factors based design) and Web development. Both empirical and theoretical articles are welcome. If you would like to submit an article to appear in this issue, please email Contributing Editor, Amelia DeLoach your ideas and rough drafts. Deadline for all articles is October 1, 1998.

Amelia DeLoach is a Contributing Editor for CMC Magazine and a Web developer and technical writer living in Chapel Hill, NC. While pursuing her M.S. in Technical Communication at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, she did research on hyptertext usability in addition to joining the staff of CMC Magazine. Past issues she's edited include the February 1997 issue on The Netizen and the April 1996 issue on Government and Democracy Online.

Copyright © 1998 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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