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This quarter's newsletter is short: we have spent our time writing up the minutes of the 3rd Annual Workshop, cleaning up the Baseline web site in various ways in order to serve your needs better, and getting ready for the 4th Annual Workshop, which will be co-hosted Hosted by C-LAB, Siemens-Nixdorf Informationssysteme AG and Paderborn University on the 15-16 December this year in Paderborn, in conjunction with a concertation meeting on the previous day planned by IESERVE (see our workshops page for more details about the Paderborn workshop and for information about the previous one).
Why another workshop so soon? It was felt that starting IE projects may need extra support this year, especially with user validation planning and the associated deliverables. If you have an interest in such matters, take a look at our suggested guidelines for writing user validation plans. We expect this next workshop to be a real hands-on, get-things-written experience. So bring the usability team along.
This year's Usability Professional's Association annual conference was a fine event. Perhaps we should draw our own conclusions from the way this organisation is moving? More talk of this in Paderborn, I hope.
"Though we have made great strides as a nation, American industry and government will become even more productive if they take advantage of usability engineering techniques... the benefits of usable technology include reduced training costs, limited user risks, and enhanced performance." Thus wrote vice-president Al Gore to the Usability Professionals Association on the occasion of their 7th annual conference, this year, taking place in Washington, DC. The conference subtitle was, appropriately enough: "Capitalising on Usability." Later this year there may be a White House conference on usability.
As an European, I felt pleased for my colleagues in the USA that their government had seen fit finally to acknowledge their efforts and aspirations. Too often, the "American way" has been seen as a recourse to brute force technology. I also felt a little jealous that my hard-working colleagues should have been able to pull off such a quite frankly diplomatic coup. But as the conference developed, I realised that here were displayed all the considerable strengths as well as some of the weaknesses of the North American approach to usability.
Some sessions were absolutely chock-full of good ideas. For instance, Jared Spool's group presented the idea that instead of thinking of the novice-expert dimension we should think of a centrality-periphery dimension. That is, computer products should be considered in terms of whether they are intended to address the core specialist competences of their users, or their peripheral interests: thus a garage mechanic requires a sophisticated tire balancing system but a simple word processor. Vice versa for the secretary who is a DIY enthusiast, presumably. Pawan Vora gave a brilliant workshop on developing web sites: one of his themes was an emphasis on building sites with accessability by users with special needs, remembering also that not all users, even the most able-bodied, can be expected to have access to the most up-to-date technology.
My favourite sessions were the "reports from the front", where usability engineers told their war stories. There were several such, marked however by a dearth of data or results: some of this is due of course for the need to preserve their clients' or employers' intellectual property, but as the conference progressed I realised that there is also a big difference between the North American and European approaches to usability engineering. For us, on this side of the Atlantic, it is important not just to observe and judge, but to place this process of observation and judgement on an empirical basis: in other words, to bring quantification of some kind into the process, and to consider the accuracy and utility of the quantified judgements thus achieved. The ELPUB 105 USABILITY STUDY, and the INUSE, RESPECT, and MEGATAQ project outputs are eloquent testimony to the vast amount of work which has taken place in Europe in this direction.
The value of this work was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in a highly-publicised session in which Prof. R. Molich presided over a presentation of the results of an experiment in which four independent laboratories evaluated the same item of software. The two North American lab approaches concentrated on meticulous and occasionally breathtakingly insightful heuristic and inspection evaluation procedures. The two European lab approaches were informed by a use of quantitative assessment and documented methodology. The result was quite remarkably, that the European lab results agreed more with each other and the North American lab results than the North American lab results agreed with each other! The labs on either side of the Atlantic were simply working in quite different commercial environments. Both sides learnt a lot from each other, and there was lively audience participation.
Walt Mossberg, known for his Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal spoke for the "technology befuddled everyman" in a brilliantly amusing and sometimes mordant plenary address. But wait -- what were those two prime examples of the future of information technology he was waving? A micro-thin personal laptop from Toshiba, and a 'digital book' that was a computer adapted to only one purpose: displaying text like a book (complete with leatherette cover). And his tip for the most advanced operating system making it on the market today? None less than the Windows CS interface. This is what happens when usability engineering is too bound up with subjective opinion and experts' personal preferences: usability engineering becomes a brake on creativity rather than a stimulant. Give my regards to Wall Street.
The BASELINE newsletter appears quarterly and features news about usability engineering activities, reviews of books and websites, announcements of conferences and other matter likely to interest Information Engineering projects as well as the wider Information Technology industry. To avoid sending copies of possibly unwanted mail to persons who have changed their addresses, moved on, or just moved out of usability engineering, we no longer mail the newsletters to a subscription list. Instead, readers are invited to download a copy by ftp from this page. The BASELINE File Archives contain back issues of the newsletters.
The latest issue of the Newsletter is June, 1998. There are three formats supported for downloading:
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