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Simplifying complexity
usable mobile

The Berlin Brain-

Interview with
Dr. Nico Pals and
Joke Kort from

technology and usability


The utopia of intuitive services and products
Interview with Dr. Nico Pals and Joke Korte from TNO

Joke Korte and Nico Pals

The importance of usability has increased. A number of usability laboratories have been established in Europe. Eurescom mess@ge wanted to know from TNO, one of the leading European institutions in user research, what the current research issues in usability are and what the economic value of usability is. Dr. Nico Pals is senior scientist in the field of customer behaviour and innovation forecasting at TNO’s Knowledge Innovation Center, Department People, Market & Business. His colleague Joke Kort works as a scientist in the field of customer behaviour at the same department.

What is your definition of usability?

Pals: Usability of a product or service makes sure that a user can reach his goal in a given context. Context is important, because it determines the way you can reach your goals best. Take, for example, a goal like making a journey from Detroit to Chicago as comfortable as possible. In 1850, you took the stagecoach and carried a gun for your safety. Today, you take the airplane, and for your safety you would make sure to leave your gun at home. In short, usability makes sure that a product is easy and preferably also enjoyable to use.

Why is it so difficult to design usable communication technologies?

Kort: It is not really difficult to design usable communication technologies. It just costs time and money. A problem is that you always have to find a compromise between the needs and abilities of the user and the possibilities of the technology. Even the needs of the user themselves can lead to compromises. For example: In general people want a nice and small mobile phone, but then it is very difficult to watch photographs or get information from a website. To optimize the design for both needs or desires careful analyses and the development of alternatives need to be considered, and this costs time and money.

What is the cost and the business value of usability?

Pals: A rule of thumb is that you spend about 10 percent of your development budget for usability engineering. That may seem a lot of money, but the chance of success in the market is increased enormously by this investment. It has become more and more common to involve users in all stages of the development process. In those cases, even 10 percent is not enough. Time to market used to be the most important factor in product development, but being the first doesn't automatically mean being the best. Since customer loyalty has grown more important in staying ahead of the competition, the emphasis on usability has become more important in relation to time to market. There are many cases in which the first entrant lost his market share because of poor quality and the second or the third entrant succeeded because of high-quality services or products, thus binding his customers through appreciation and high-quality image.

How do you measure the usability of communication technologies?

Kort: The most common method to measure usability is a test in a usability laboratory. Representatives of the target group use the product under controlled conditions and mostly under video observation. The results of such tests are used for adjustments to the concept or to the prototype. Usability measurement alone, however, is not enough anymore. Usability must be created during the development process. This is done best by involving users in the design cycle. Doing so reduces the need for explicit usability measurements. It also saves costs, because the complete redesign of a prototype costs a lot of time and effort compared to some small changes over time.

What is done in research to increase the usability of communication devices?

Pals: Usability engineering and usage research is getting more attention, not only within TNO ICT but within all kinds of organizations, partially due to the fact that more and more attention is paid to customer loyalty. This means more resources are spent on usability engineering throughout the design process, which is a good development.

Furthermore, in the near future products and services will become more complex. There will be service bundles consisting of multiple services, provided by different stakeholders, the use of multiple devices for the same services, multiple target groups, and more. This will make usability research with the current methods more difficult. We believe the solutions lies in a combination of event logging and qualitative research. We are currently developing new methodologies for these kinds of measurements.

By when will we have communication devices, which could be handled intuitively by anyone irrespective of their previous knowledge?

Pals:We already have these kinds of communication devices. Think of the panic buttons elderly people carry for alarming nurses or personnel when something is wrong. However, most of these products are not meant for mass markets and are therefore not well known. Furthermore, the questions remains, if all communication devices should be intuitive to use. Some goals, which should be realized with communication devices, are so complex that intuitive use without prior knowledge is not realizable. What I am saying is that depending on the product or service you are developing, you should pay special attention to the usability and, thus, intuitive use. This doesn’t, however, mean that intuitive use is always a requirement to build a usable service. The goal is to design a service as intuitive as possible during first interaction. Later on, when the user got used to the basic levels of interaction, he or she will often be more prepared to go through some trouble to learn, for example, the extra features for extra functionality. We might never reach the utopia of intuitive services and products, but we can try to get as close as possible with good design.

The interview was conducted by Milon Gupta.

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