3 February 02004

Usability of Online Content

I read the paper A Usability Study for Promoting eContent in Higher Education because the title promises a lot — how to optimise the usability of all that stuff we put online, so that people can learn from it — and I wanted to see whether the authors would pull it off.

I think the paper asks the wrong question. I'm not quite sure what the right question is, but reading helped me think where it might be found.

It's not a study in the sense of reporting any new research; it's a review of four sets of web design guidelines by Thomas Powell, Jakob Nielsen, IBM and Microsoft. From these the paper abstracts seven 'general factors of usability'.

Unfortunately these are mostly too abstract and general to provide much practical direction. For example, the 'content' factor says "content provided should be useful, relevant and up-to-date," which just begs further questions. And "the use multimedia elements could enhance information presentation if used properly and effectively."

I believe thinking about learning online as a matter of 'providing good content' is limited in its scope and doesn't lead to rich and useful guidelines.

Ten or fifteen years ago, we usability/Human-Computer Interaction types worked with software engineers who wanted us to define a bunch of user interface design specs at the start of the project that they could just implement (stuff like: 'use these colours', 'put this number of form fields on each screen', 'make menus look like this with this number of options'). They were trained to think of all issues as engineering problems so that seemed like a sensible request to them. It was always a struggle to explain that, though we'd have loved to provide such clear-cut solutions, usability generally isn't like engineering. We used to talk about as an issue of process rather than product — now enshrined in the International Standard ISO 13407 - Human-centred design process for interactive systems.

Now the playing field has moved to the web, and we have to work with people coming from a publishing mentality rather than an engineering one. But the struggle is the same: try to think of usability as a process — an evolving dialogue between users and designer — rather than something that inheres in a product (e.g. 'content', 'learning resource' etc).

The publishing mentality grew up in the era of mass production: producing identical copies of the same thing as an economic means of getting a large amount of stuff to loads of people. In some cases this provides a good model for supporting learning, but not always.

Some people have recognised that the web provides the means to go beyond mass production, and have coined new buzz-terms like mass customisation. My instinct says that's not the right solution for learning either.

In the middle of the last century, critics like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno analysed the impact of mass production on cultural experience, providing a critique of the idea of cultural 'product.' Maybe we need an analogous kind of assessment of how the web might change the terms of engagement between teachers/publishers/facilitators and learners.

My hunch is that there is scope for a new kind of learning intermediary to optimise the process of learners identifying, procuring and interacting the sources of learning best suited to their needs.

Thanks to Infobits for the original reference to the Usability paper.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Curatorial, E-learning, Human-Computer Interaction on 3 February 02004 | TrackBack

Thanks to giving us the link for the higher ed usability paper. Nice find. I agree that it is rather abstract and general, but there aren't many papers in this particular area. This is the first one I've seen.

Posted by: Michael Heraghty (Usability Consultant) on 25 November 02004 at 2:35 PM
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