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Creating Online Application Power Users Using Graduated Usability

  • February 16, 2006
  • By Robert Buffone
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Keeping the Web simple and easy has driven Internet usage to more than a billion people worldwide. Anyone with a connection, a browser and the ability to enter a URL can use the Internet today. This simplicity is great for those looking to browse their favorite blog or search for a recipe for dinner, but it has many problems as an application development platform — usability being the primary issue. Of course, tools and HTML compatibility also pose problems, but these are development issues and are dealt with by a few well-paid, trained individuals. Usability affects a greater number of people over a longer period of time.

HTML and current browsers are built to deliver content-rich Web sites, making it easy to navigate between documents. In contrast, applications need complex workflows and usability features to allow users to take advantage of the functionality they deliver. In order to fit applications into the navigation-driven approach of the Web, developers and designers typically use the navigation of a link to perform an action, rather than navigating to a new document. This makes learning to use online applications easy by fitting into existing Web usage patterns, but not necessarily usable.

"Simplicity does not equal usability"

While the aforementioned statement may seem counter intuitive, "usability" encompasses the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which users achieve tasks in a given application. Because users differ in many facets — particularly in experience and skill level, they will judge the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction of the application differently.

Graduated Usability is a concept that, when applied to application design, allows a single application to provide the means for any user, no matter their particular skill set or experience level, to effectively and efficiently use that application. Additionally, an application designed with Graduated Usability will inherently provide the ability to transition users from one skill or experience level to the next. When novice users are transformed into power users, they can more efficiently complete tasks and perform more skilled tasks.

Graduated Usability targets three skill levels of users and defines what is needed to make each more efficient:

  • The Novice User looks to perform tasks easily with little or knowledge of the workflow of an application. Applications that are too complex in design reduce the user's efficiency and additional resources can be tied up as they seek help to complete the initial tasks. Effective application design draws upon usability paradigms, making movement from one application to another easy through familiar designs, and uses visual keys, such as links, to provide users with suggestions for what to do next.

  • With basic knowledge of an application and the ability to perform tasks, Intermediate Users are able to complete given activities, and seek to do so quicker and more frequently, enabling them to take on additional responsibility. Since this class of users is looking to transition themselves into a power user as quickly as possible, education becomes an important application feature. Education should be an intrinsic application design element, because users will spend most of their time using the application — not the help system, which should be viewed as a contingency plan for the education process. The edification of users should be almost submittal.

  • Completing tasks efficiently is the primary need of the Power User. These users have performed tasks countless times, and multiple step processes seem mundane. The ability to quickly complete tasks make the Power User extremely valuable to their employers, reducing overhead with their ability to accomplish more in less time. Thus, applications need to be designed with the Power User in mind — all users are striving to reach this skill level and these are the users that contribute most to a business' bottom line.

Graduated Usability isn't a new concept — most desktop applications use it, Web applications are limited in their ability to be designed with Graduated Usability. As more people leverage Web-based applications as part of their everyday life, for both work and non-work related tasks, more time will be spent using these applications than those on the desktop. However, currently, Web applications offer few alternatives to users: accomplish tasks less efficiently over time, wasting time and money, or move on to better designed applications that can meet their needs.

Designers and developers of Web applications have only a two alternatives as well: build multiple applications to meet the needs of targeted users' skill sets, forcing some users to seek applications that they can use efficiently elsewhere, or incorporate technology that allows a single application to meet the needs of every skill level. A single application employing Graduated Usability is the ultimate solution; it will reduce development cost and eliminate lost revenue opportunity associated with users seeking other applications.

Lowered usability = lowered productivity = wasted money

In business, productivity translates to revenue, so whether directly or indirectly, Web applications have an impact on the bottom line of business. Continued use of poorly designed applications will eventually decrease productivity, which wastes money. . Complex applications can be too hard for unskilled users, who will waste time as they struggle to complete tasks, while advanced users waste time with applications that do not allow them to complete tasks quickly. As businesses continually look for ways to make employees more productive, Web application usability for employees is a great place to start — particularly since more and more businesses are deploying applications online.

Web based e-mail applications have become hugely popular — businesses use them to lower the cost of deploying e-mail products in-house and individuals use them to check personal e-mail from anywhere with an Internet connection. Most online e-mail applications are generally the same, although there are some exceptions. A typical e-mail application shown in the figure 1 below makes it simple to work with your e-mail, viewing and deleting messages, etc.

Figure 1: GoDaddy.com e-mail application

An Informal Experiment

Experimenting with a few different ways of deleting e-mail will illustrate how a simple task can lead to lowered productivity. As you can see from the image above, users need only follow a few simple steps: check off the box next to the e-mail they wish to delete; select "move to trash bin" from the combo box above; press the "move" button. Or, they can follow another set of steps: check the box next to the e-mail they wish to delete; press the "delete" button.

Desktop e-mail applications allow the same easy process, offering toolbar buttons and menus. However, desktop applications offer higher-level usability features that allow the use of a shortcut key, thereby reducing the steps and time it takes to perform the task. Again, since Web applications don't utilize rich components in their design, it is not possible to offer advanced usability features due to the lack of functionality of HTML and the time it takes to design, develop and test such features.

An informal experiment showed that it took an average of 5.046 seconds to delete an e-mail. This included the time it took to make the round trip to the server and refresh the page, which was included because the e-mail application is unusable during this process. (Without incorporating the page refresh time it took an average of 2.565 seconds to delete an e-mail). Repeating the experiment in a desktop application, it only took an average of 0.643 seconds to delete an e-mail by pressing the "delete" key (calculated with a hand off the keyboard to start).

Comparing the "delete" key action in the desktop application to the comparable Web-based action, it's clear how much less time is spent using simplified user interface approaches (see figure below). If deleting an e-mail in a Web application takes 565 percent more time than in a desktop application, one can imagine how much time would be lost if the user was instead restoring an incorrectly deleted e-mail or completing a more complicated task.

Method used Average TimeIncrease time
"Delete" key - desktop e-mail application0.643  
"Delete" button - Web application3.650567.65%
Combo box and "Move" button - web application5.046784.76%

The next table shows the potential cost of all the people using the Internet deleting just one e-mail per day. These numbers are not meant to illustrate that Web based e-mail is a waste of money, but to show how usability affects the bottom line.

People 1,000,000,000.00
Emails Per/Day 1.00
  Time Wasted
  Money wasted
Wage Per Hour$1.00

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