Accessibility: These Boots are Made for… Hiking?

The age old adage of trying to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” to test the product, is a lot simpler to say than implement. Whether it’s the way our roads are planned for more efficient traffic management or how the user interface on specific software should be, the ‘user experience’ is the afterthought remembered and footnoted for the next revision.

To answer the question in the title, no, these boots are made for walking! Nancy Sinatra said so! But the only way you’d know that was if you took the time to actually plan user testing into your development timeline. Microsoft Executive and Usability Experience Manager at Microsoft (EMEA) Michael Köster explains, “User experience might sound like a very philosophical concept but if you think about it, many applications and products today are more functional than before. Developers take more of an interest today in functionality but there is still more effort required to make it a functional application.”

User Experience, according to Michael, is all empathizing with the user’s objective in using the application or website. Where the buttons should be, whether the information is easy to follow, what the flow of information will be like and what color combination not only best represents you, but also gets the job done aesthetically.

Take the example of a simple website. It’s always interesting to take a look at an analysis of your site to see what areas of your site are more optimized for, let’s say, advertising banners. If your target audience belongs to a demographic where they use Dial-up internet or, on the other hand, primarily access your web presence through a mobile phone, then by not developing further on these opportunities, you will be forcing people to stop coming to you. With so many options out there, people have other choices.

“Functionality will only go far when you’re in a competitive market and build the functional application. Chances are someone else is doing the same thing. The question you have to ask yourself is ‘how can you elevate your product, service or application and make it stand out from the competition?’ It turns out that ensuring that the user has a positive experience with your product, is one of the primary methods to develop a strong track record with the audience. The USP that companies have is based on how many people can use their product. How many people can use their product is based on how easy it is to use. How easy it is to use is determined by the amount of time and effort you invested ensuring that the learning curve required to use your product, is minimal.

“That is what sets your application apart from the rest of the pack and if you’ve put in the requisite time, it’s usually something that cannot be copied easily by your competition,” explains Michael. And yes, there is a secret sauce to achieving peak user experience.

The Secret Sauce and the i-Word

Businesses are able to serve niche markets if people on the team speak ‘shop’ and the ‘niche’ lingo. Say “Press Return” to someone who is familiar with geekspeak, and they’ll know you’re referring to the ‘Enter key’. Use the same term for a mass product and chances are, the traffic on your Support Line will be relatively chunky just to ask what key you were talking about.

But the ‘i-word’ we’re talking about, is not internet and it’s certainly not innovation, though you need both. The word we’re focusing on is ‘interdisciplinary’. Michael explains, “The most successful software products are developed by interdisciplinary teams of different people working together. It’s not only the developer that creates the product – it’s everyone who gives in valuable input from everything relating to aesthetics, placement, hierarchy, sound and everything else you have in your product. When you create a website for example, it’s quite common to have a designer in the developer team because the designer will be more attuned to the finer details of the user interface.”

Michael finds this ‘interdisciplinary approach’ an absolute necessity and explains that many companies and development teams often overlook this. “They might create a design that looks nice but creates fundamental flaws such as the lack of optimization with all screen sizes, or additional plugins required to run it. If you don’t take the time to benefit from the feedback and experiences of all the members of the team who will test the product out based on their own habits, you risk losing your product edge to competition. It’s important to think about how you can incorporate designers, specialists and new designs into the project from the beginning so that it automatically results in a better user experience.” The user experience on the Web has been getting better because the concept is trickling down and finding a place in the process management, however development companies who product rich desktop client applications continue to overlook this. “Not many companies consider having a designer, for example, on the development team for a desktop client. That’s a whole new field right now for many organizations.”

Hiking Back in Time

Traditionally speaking, ‘Technology’ is meant to be, well, technical. But that definition changed as soon as IT began its integration into our lives. With the advent of customization, service providers across the board saw the opportunity to develop products and services which catered to specific needs and began pushing them out.

But that was before we had the kind of integration we depend on today between software applications and our lives. It’s advanced, high speed and complicated and there’s so much choice out there, service providers and manufacturers have to compete for the same market. Why is it that you prefer certain brands over others? Once you are comfortable using a device or brand, your customer base tends to remain loyal to it, which means long term sales. Sales and Marketing departments of a lot of organizations insist on giving feedback on prototypes even before they are put out into their alpha testing. This is to try and best assess what the product niche is and how they can create their marketing plans to highlight the best features.

Michael continues, “I realize that not every team can be a ‘dreamteam’ and have the luxury of getting feedback from all stakeholders, however there are some fundamental rules that can be followed by developers to build on their product following.”

An in-depth discussion with the usability expert helps to identify the following:

  • Keep it consistent: Make an application consistent. This means don’t change the placement of the ‘exit’ button because that confuses users.
  • Create the standard and style sheet before the project commences: User experience is more then fancy buttons, graphics and nice colors: Again, planning all this out at the beginning stages is important. Create a template or a style sheet that can be constantly referred to.
  • Listen to users: Many organizations have alpha users, or the group of loyal, trusted users who can use prototypes and give you feedback on it. You have to listen to your users and try to find out what they actually want to do with your applications. If your application forces them to make a change in habit, that’s generally not very good. Listening to the user and following some basic application designs will get you a long way.
  • Don’t rush it: There is a reason why timelines are generated. Unless you’re the kind of company or developer who waits until the last night to start on the client’s project, you need to ensure that there is ample time for usability testing. This is one part of the project that must not be cut back.

Every Cloud Has It’s “Silver Lighting”

Silverlight is Microsoft’s development platform for creating rich web applications that run on Mac OS, Windows, and Linux for developing applications. “If you understand a few basic principles in Silverlight, you can do everything you need to with respect to, as we put it, light up the Web!” It was these trainings that brought Michael to Pakistan and the Microsoft Innovation Center in Karachi. “That’s what we see in these trainings. One day, participants learn how to build these experiences and the next, they are creating the experiences themselves using very powerful applications on the web.”

But Microsoft has taken some heat for entering the web space so late. Do you really think you will be able to handle the competition that’s already out there? Michael retorts, “I would say that’s a misconception. There is no doubt that Microsoft is coming from the Desktop and is trying to move into the web space. Other companies are coming from the web and trying to move to the Desktop space, so it’s all a very interesting phase we’re in right now. I think our platform is one of the broadest since no matter what your project is, the creation of a desktop client or a web-based project, we’ve got something that can work for you. So I wouldn’t say that we have any drawback coming from the Desktop; on the contrary, because what we also want to empower millions of developers who are today building on our platforms, we can take their skills to the web using Silverlight or ASP.Net, which can turn into a very valuable resource.”

There is no doubt that Michael is very passionate about creating the right user experience and working with developers and companies to ensure that transfer of knowledge takes place. “It’s necessary to carry this phase through the development cycle and it is always astounding to me how frequently it is overlooked. If today, companies invest in user experience, they’ll be the ones at the forefront of development and will be successful in the long run. If you have an application that is functional and enables your users to do their job more effectively and with greater ease, you’ve got it made.”

Michaels shares a key bit of learning in the form of a quote he cites during his training sessions: The experience is the product. No matter how great the product is, if, for some reason the experience is bad, people will equate that experience with the quality of the product. “Remember, the alternative to good design is not ‘no design’. It’s bad design.”

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