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Web Usability Illustrated: Breathing Easier With Your Usable e-Commerce Site

published in The Journal of Electronic Commerce, Volume 11, Number 4

Eric Schaffer

Eric Schaffer, Ph.D., CPE, is CEO and Founder of Human Factors International, Inc.

He has been involved in creating and teaching software design for more than 25 years.


John Sorflaten, Ph.D., CPE, teaches and consults as a Project Director at HFI.

With Eric, he initiated a usability curriculum at a local university in his home town of Fairfield, Iowa.

Web Usability Illustrated Article
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The Breathing Problem

Insidious Ailment? We need a metaphor to make a subtle, but important point. We have friends who've lived in Los Angeles. They report that when the smog in Los Angeles is light, they don't feel like they're suffering. However, epidemiologists say Los Angeleans suffer health effects similar to a pack-a-day smoking habit. They are paying the price of low awareness.

Similarly, when using an e-commerce Web site, we may not feel like we're suffering. However, many new Netizens fail to get the full benefit of the Web offering due to poor usability. What's going on?

We suggest that sub-optimal usability, like smog, indeed has an endemic nature that goes largely unnoticed. We may not see "poor usability" just as we may not "see" light smog. There is a visibility problem. (Granted, flying into Los Angeles, we see the smog clearly from that exalted perspective.) And as with smog, individuals with varying degrees of sensitivity and knowledge will complain at different points of the pollution or usability index. Wouldn't it be nice for e-commerce managers to "breathe easier" at night knowing their site has a clean bill of health for usability issues?

Diagnosis: In the market place, managers rank competitiveness closely with ease-of-use. A recent study of 212 Web sites on an electronic shopping center showed that managers selected these 3 top priorities out of 33 choices:

  1. "Enhance competitiveness or create strategic advantage."
  2. "Enable easier access to information."
  3. "Provide new products or services to customers." (Lederer, Mirchandani, & Sims, 1998, p. 95)

A systematic, scientific approach to e-commerce design uses human factors or ergonomic principles to minimize the visual, intellectual, mental, and physical "effort" users exert. While research shows that users typically fail to recognize "good" from "bad" design (Andre and Wickens, 1995), the market place ultimately proves a stern and accurate judge. Note, however, that using the market place as a usability monitor costs a lot of money.

Locating Symptoms: How to be competitive? How to be "easier"? Aye, here's the rub. Every Webmaster seeks these. But uninformed, intuitive design works like smog - it grows into a pervasive but insidious and often unseen problem. Symptoms appear as part of the "competitive gradient" as users instinctively gravitate to software that provides faster productivity, fewer errors, less learning effort, and greater subjective satisfaction: all human factors or ergonomic goals. An epidemic of missed e-commerce opportunity arises for all sites within the gradient. How can we identify the invisible problems of difficult usability? We need a usability smog monitor such as a trained professional.


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