Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Usability from the trenches

Mark Liberman is a linguist and mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also has some responsibilities for student accommodation.
He has written a wonderful article about an example of poor usability for a new computer application which was supposed to let students report facilities problems - leaky pipes, blocked drains, or burnt-out light-bulbs - to the facilities management service.
In "When bad interaction happens to good people" on his Language Log blog, Liberman describes what was wrong with the new software and the innovative way in which he addressed the issue - he wrote an "underground guide" in the style of a guide to a computer game!
This story elegantly highlights what tech writers and usability consultants have been trying to say for years: make user tasks the focus of user interactions with systems. Don't make people struggle guess what the system wants them to do, instead create the system - or at least its UI - so that it anticipates what the users needs are.

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