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An Early Millennial Retrospective

(SIGCHI Bulletin May/Jun 2003)


Father time chasing a winged hourglassUnder normal circumstances you might not expect to see a retrospective of the new millennium for at least a few more years (or perhaps a few hundred, depending on your enthusiasm for such things). However, given that this column started in 2000 and that web time is a fairly accelerated phenomenon, it seemed appropriate to pay a brief visit to bygone days for the final print edition of the Bulletin.

Our journey begins in the year the internet industry collapse began. The term “dot bomb” may have been born in the 1990’s but 2000 was its coming of age. Jakob Nielsen wrote an Alertbox in the middle of the year foretelling the death of web design, primarily from a usability perspective. In my first Bulletin article, Web evolution: Is HCI an endangered species, I looked at some of the implications of the dot.com demise and considered the future of web design. Have things changed? In general I believe they have. E-commerce sites in particular have discovered what works and what doesn’t in terms of converting visits into sales. Happily, clear consistent navigation based on other successful sites is where the safe money is (and safe money is what counts at the moment). The intervening years have also allowed the industry to mellow a little. What was originally a pitched battle between usability professionals and the design community has receded to the occasional skirmish as cooperation and understanding between protagonists continues to improve.

Let’s skip forward to the middle of 2001 where I asked one of the perennial questions of usability testing: How many users does it take to change a web site? Jared Spool and his colleagues at UIE had just presented a paper at CHI on their experience of testing with large numbers of users (“Five users is nowhere near enough”). The paper reported on a study that failed to find even half of a web site's predicted usability problems with 18 users, compared to Nielsen’s recommended five users for discount usability testing. It is a little disconcerting that this question remains largely unresolved even now, especially considering that Nielsen’s original recommendation was made in 1989 (later revised upwards in a 1993 paper with Thomas Landauer). In How many users… I suggested that the complexity of web pages was the culprit – how can you expect to find the majority of a web site’s problems with just five users when there are dozens of links, menus, panels, drop-downs, pop-ups and other distractions on each page? This area certainly needs more research but so far the question remains largely unanswered.

At the end of 2001 I wrote about a perceptual issue that had worrying implications for web design. Designing for the Grand Illusion described an interesting problem known as change blindness. The potential for this arises each time the scene being viewed is changed with a blank field between the original and modified images (the article includes a detailed description and demonstration). At the time, I mentioned the impact change blindness might have on the design of search pages, but I very recently came across another example with even greater impact. During a site evaluation I attempted to follow the links in a series of menus that dropped-down from a large navigation bar. At one point I clicked on a drop-down button as usual, only to discover that the menu was now unrelated to the heading I thought I clicked. What had happened, unnoticed by me, was that the navigation bar had changed to accommodate the new sub-site I had entered. The bar appeared in the same place, in the same color and with approximately the same spacing as the bar that had appeared for the majority of the evaluation session. Only the text had changed. This alteration was obscured by the blank screen that normally accompanies new web pages. Clearly change blindness is something web developers need to be aware of. I hope I will be able to report some progress in a future retrospective.

At about this time last year I commented on a research-based suggestion that web navigation ought to appear on the right side of the page, so that it would be closer to the web browser’s vertical scroll bar. (Navigate on the right? The jury is still out.) I was not convinced then and I am less convinced now that this is a good idea. For many sites, it has become a de facto standard that the main navigation appears across the top of the page, secondary navigation appears in a panel on the left and incidental links, if any, appear on the right. In many cases this means the last place users expect to find important navigation is on the right. Usability testing has frequently confirmed this. Since the suggestion was based on Fitt’s Law (large, near objects are easier to hit than small ones that are further away), I proposed an alternative solution: make your links bigger. This fairly obvious improvement has still not caught on, alas. In site evaluations I find myself commenting on article links with large photographs or headlines that lead nowhere, while the secret to reaching the article content lies in the word “more” in tiny letters at the bottom of the page. This is one case where bigger really is better – we ought to take advantage of it.

Later in 2002 I lamented the appalling state of e-banking: login procedures that confound even the most determined customers; confusing navigation and terminology; enforced logout at the use of the browser back button; inadequate information, feedback and customer support. As irritation gives way to frustration I have become the (usually short-term) customer of many e-banking sites. And while not much time has elapsed since the original article (The Lost World of E-Banking) I have to say this area of the web seems to be in decline as the banking sector struggles to reduce costs. I find myself looking at web-generated statements with no opening balance and no easy way of distinguishing debit from credit items; site designs that list the details of the wrong account if the browser back button is used (bank’s instructions: “don’t use the back button”) and a popular e-payment site that cannot transfer funds in different currencies without making substantial errors in its calculations. As I mentioned in the article, it may be that the banking sector is complacent as customers do not like changing accounts, but the price to be paid will be a consumer backlash against these prehistoric attitudes. At the very least, the market is wide open to new businesses that are willing to put usability and customer satisfaction first.

That is pretty much the millennium so far. I have only touched on a handful of articles from this column – they can all be found in printed copies of the Bulletin; on the SIGCHI web site or as preprint editions collected together on our articles page.

See you in the next edition of interactions!

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 35, May-June 2003} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/761919.761931

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