Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Five Usability Challenges of Web-Based Applications

Designing usable applications like Facebook ...

"Recently, networking site Facebook.com introduced a new feature the designers thought users would love. Instead of forcing users to check up on every friend’s Facebook pages constantly to see any change in the friend’s status, they created a “mini feed” which instantly displayed all changes on their own Facebook page. The designers thought users would embrace the new feature, seeing it as a real strength of the site.

Instead, users rejected the mini feed. They didn’t like how it was propagating information they perceived to be personal across the entire user base, seeing the feature as an invasion of their online privacy. Within 24 hours of the feature’s introduction, more than 750,000 of the eight million users had signed online petitions, putting Facebook’s new feature squarely on the front page of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

(It’s interesting to note Facebook users found out about the petition by seeing other people sign it in their own mini feed display. The feature itself contributed to the protest’s impressive speed and strength.)

Having 10% of your users reject and protest a new feature within 24 hours is an issue unique to web-based applications. If users don’t like a feature in their desktop word processor, they may complain and some may editorialize, but you wouldn’t see such an immediate and passionate response.

Web-based applications present usability challenges we don’t often see in other types of designs. These challenges need to be top-of-mind as the design team creates, updates, and maintains the application.

Usability Challenge #1: Scalability

A contributor to Facebook’s mini-feed debacle was the scale of their design. Facebook, making any change to their site, instantly affects eight million people. If even one percent has issues with the change, that’s 80,000 affected users.

Being a social networking site compounded Facebook’s issue. Users connect to other users, some users having dozens or even hundreds of connections. Those users with many connections instantly saw a very populated mini feed and realized their previously subtle interactions on their page were now broadcast to each connection.

Scale issues show up in a myriad of ways. Netflix, the online movie store, allows users to place movies they want to see into their queues. Managing a queue with 10 movies is quite simple. However, some users have hundreds of movies in their queue. Do they chunk the display of the queue into groups of 10 or 20? Do they display them all at once? How do they effectively give users control over the movies arrival order?

Many e-commerce sites give users the option of storing their shipping and billing information. What happens when users have multiple payment methods (such as a work credit card and a home credit card) or have multiple shipping addresses? For some gift sites, such as Proflowers.com, users could have many people they wish to send flowers to on a regular basis. That implies building sophisticated address book functionality into their order processing application.

Designers need to take both the scale of the user base and the scale of the data into account when thinking about how to design their web-based applications effectively."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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