Fiddling with the Internet Dials:
By Thomas Pack
the early days of radio, tuning in a broadcast was
not a simple process. People "fiddled with the dials,
counted the stations they could receive, and marveled
at how far away they were," says Steven Lubar in his
book InfoCulture (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). The
early adopters of the medium "looked at radio as a
game of skill." It wasn't until the late 1920s and
early 1930safter manufacturers had made tuners
easier to usethat radios became fixtures in American
Are we still in the early days of online information?
Of course, digital databases have been available for
decades. Most people know how to pull up a Web page
and type a few keywords into Google. But finding specific,
high-quality information efficiently still is a game
of skill, and complex searches often require a trial-and-error
approachyou still need to "fiddle with the dials."
Content providers that want to make working with
online information easier can follow usability guidelines
to design their systems and services, but what exactly
does usability mean now that we are a few decades into
the digital information revolution? Are there different
guidelines for different types of content? Is there
anything new in the field? And are there emerging technologies
for which usability principles need to be applied?
Usability is a relatively new field, but the term
has been used so often in so many different contexts,
it is in danger of losing its precise meaning. Andrew
Dillon, dean of the Graduate School of Library and
Information Science at the University of Texas, says
he tends to "accept the ISO definition of usability
which refers to the effectiveness, efficiency, and
satisfaction with which intended users can perform
realistic tasks in context."
According to Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen
Norman Group, "The definition of usability is to help
humans overcome technology and make it easy and efficient
and pleasant for them to use."
USABILITY DEPENDS ON CONTEXT
But how are those definitions applied in different
contexts? Is usability different if you're talking
about a library catalog, a library portal, a library
site in an academic setting, or a library site in a
Dillon points out that "usability is a property of
interaction, not of interfaces. So usability transcends
portals, settings, and catalogs. However, in determining
and defining usability for each of these contexts,
it is reasonable to assume there might be some differences
in the desirable levels of effectiveness, efficiency,
and satisfaction we wish to enable. Given this, the
resulting usable interfaces may look very different
for each of these scenarios."
Nielsen says, "Fundamentally, usability is always
the same, but the interpretation of the words in the
definition can be very different. In an academic environment,
for example, there may be less need for an easy-to-learn
system because it's the user's job to learn. Students
are supposed to learn, and professors are supposed
to do research. So those users typically will be more
interested in something that's a very powerful tool
that can really help them retrieve all the information
they need. Also in academia, there's a premium placed
on having done thorough research and being familiar
with the literature, so those are the tasks you would
facilitate in that setting.
"In the corporate setting, it's like, 'Don't bother
me with that stuff,' but it depends [on the specific
environment], because obviously there are multiple
types of corporate settings. There are corporate research
labs that are similar to academic environments, so
the distinction would be 'Are you doing research, or
are you doing business?'"
If you're doing business, Nielsen says, the traditional
information retrieval systemone that provides
the ability to find all relevant information
on topicoften is not appropriate.
"That's not really what you want in the business setting
because you don't have time to study all the information," he
says. "You just need a summary. You need the factsthe
one best answer, not all answers. In that setting,
usability means efficiency. How fast can a user find
something? In addition, you cannot necessarily assume
the average businessperson is going to care very much
about library catalogs or anything like that. The technology
has to be really simple."
So what do those guidelines mean for Web design?
How would the design elements differ if you're providing,
say, a directory of corporate information, a bibliographic
database, or a numeric file?
According to Dillon, the differences are best treated "through
an analysis of the intended users and their tasks."
Nielsen agrees. "You want to present information
so it makes sense for the tasks people are trying to
perform," he says, "because the types of information
are quite different, and you're going to want to do
be able to do different things with them. For example,
you may want to be able to sort one type of data by
different criteria. I think the most popular way to
do sorting is to present a table. Then the user can
click on the table to sort by heading. It's an idea
borrowed from spreadsheets that we have generalized
into other systems. This holds to the principle of
consistency: Once I've learned one way of doing sorting,
if I can use the same way in other interfaces, it's
"But on the other hand, because there also are going
to be a lot of differences on those types of sites,
the way you would resolve this question is to ask yourself,
'What are the top three most important things people
are going to do with this information?' Then you're
going to emphasize those tasks. Of course, you look
at the other things people are going to do, and you
would try to make those tasks possible as well, but
you always want to emphasize the top ones."
A NEED FOR CREATIVITY
Dillon says he believes usability is hampered by
a lack of creative approaches to enabling information-related
"Most interface designers are stuck in a groove," he
says, "and there is a dearth of really creative new
design occurring. This is most apparent on the Web,
where the standard navigational bar layout and the
unimaginative exploitation of spatial properties have
resulted in a sameness to most sites.
"I suppose the rigid adherence to rather vague heuristics
as if they were laws has not helped, but we really
need to start questioning what works and why it works
from a human perspective so we can produce designs
that truly augment human capabilities."
Dillon adds that although "this is the age of augmentation
and empowerment, most usability work tends to trivialize
WHAT'S NEW IN USABILITY?
During the past decade, studies have revealed new
insights into the best ways to apply specific usability
guidelines, but Nielsen points out that "the basics
of usabilitymaking technology easy and efficient
and pleasanthave been the same forever, and the
bigger conclusions as to how do we achieve usability
have been the same too. Consider the principle of consistency
mentioned earlier. If you have to learn things only
once and then you can do them the same way everywhere,
that dramatically lowers the learning barrier. And
that's fundamental. That's not dependent on the specific
technology we're using today versus 10 years ago. It's
not dependent on whether we're using mainframes or
PCs or Web sites or cell phones.
"Or," Nielsen continues, "consider progressive disclosure,
which means you show a smaller thing first and then
show a larger thing. That's a fundamental principle
as well. Of course, the interpretation of these principles
can differ. For example, in a traditional PC environment,
an example of progressive disclosure is to show people
a dialog box that contains the most important choices'how
many copies do you want to print,' for exampleand
there would be a button that says something like 'advanced
features' or 'advanced print options.' You would click
that to get the rest of the choices. For Web navigation,
you often like to have, say, a summary of articles
on the first page. Then you can click to get the full
articles. It's the same idea, but the details are certainly
different for different environments.
"Still, the basics of usability are the same, and
the reason they are the same is they relate to the
way humans work. That doesn't change over a 10-year
period. It's literally the same people. I'm here today.
I was here 10 years ago. I'm going to be here, hopefully,
in 10 years as well. So it's the same literal warm
bodies we're designing for year by year."
NOT JUST WEB SITE USABILITY
Nielsen points out that during the next few years,
applying usability principles will be important not
only for designers of emerging technologies, but also
for the information organizations that will be providing
content to the new devices.
"I think we are only at the very beginning of where
we're going in terms of technology," he says. "I think
the biggest change is probably going to be liberating
the Web from the PC, once we get much more portable
"Portable could mean small handhelds that you carry
at all times, or it could mean flat-panel tablets that
give you, for example, the ability to read the newspaper
in the morning at your dining table. I think we're
going to get a new generation of portable devices,
and that's going to generate a vast outreach in terms
of additional things we can do that we can't do right
now. That's something people should look at. They should
ask themselves, 'What does that mean to what I'm doing?'"
Perhaps in the future, people will look back at this
decade and our struggles to get Web site usability
designs right, and marvel at how primitive our interactivity
with information resources really was. They may not
liken it to "fiddling with the radio dials"a
different metaphor may come to the fore. It's likely,
however, that ease of use, the ability to access the
correct information quickly, and customer satisfaction
will remain as important elements of the information
Thomas Pack [ThomasPack@aol.com] is
a freelance writer in the Louisville, Kentucky area.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to email@example.com.