With the progressive pace of the information technologies, scores of critical changes about many concepts have become manifest and one important change have occured about the concept of "campus". Up until 20 years ago, the conventional meaning of campus implied a space with physical borders, such as a village or a county, where students and teachers modestly come together to attain such principal objectives of academia as training, educating and researching. Such innovations about distant education and interactive services brought about by information technologies, have radically changed the way people perceive the meaning of campus. In todays world the university web sites have become the integral part of the virtual campus; a space where students, university staff, and people from many different parts of the world are able to share information instantly. For this very reason, it becomes evident that the increasing number of people using these pages, either living in the campus or staying out of campus, renders the importance of the usability issue an essential and vital part of the design of the web pages. In its modern sense, while campus retains the academic values of the past, it enthusiastically hails the new tools of modern technology. (Langenberg and Spicer, 2001).
When one thinks about all kinds of interfaces servicing the users, web pages, of course, are not the exclusive concern of usability issue. Larger number of audiences are reached through technology each day and this fact adds pressure for the costs of software, hardware and human resources commensurately; and as long as the use of technology extends more widely in more critically important medical and military spheres, it is for certain usability will increasingly attract more and more attention. The sine qua non design attitude in the technological era requires us to move away from the monopoly of the designer and focus the efforts more vigorously toward the user. It is because of the unsatisfactory or weak interface designs of the designers that the retirees are uncomfortable with ATMs, people having visual impairments cannot use the web pages, some of us are experiencing difficulties with palm computers or the remote control devices of the TVs and so on. To prevail over these inconveniencies, the Human Computer Interaction field of study draws together the diverse disciplinary fields as Ergonomics, Cognitive Psychology, Software Engineering, Graphical and Industrial Design, Educational Sciences, Organisational Psychology etc. and, thus, usability concept can now be evaluated and assessed on the basis of scientific criteria. This article will cover no further than the issue of testing the usability of web pages.
The customary method practised to obtain feedback from the users about the use of the web pages is conducting web questionnaires. The design process of the web questionnaires is itself an enormous field of work; therefore, lets remain content here just by stating that, rather than asking such haphazard/aimless questions as "Did you like this page?", the questionnaire questions should be comprised of the valid and applicable ones as determined previously by related studies. The QUIS® (Questionnaire for User Interaction Satisfaction) developed by Norman, Slaughter and Shneiderman at University of Maryland sets a good example(1). On the other hand, usability is certainly more broad and extensive a concept than the the user satisfaction that is attempted to be assessed with the web questionnaires. Questionnaires reveal the opinions of users about the interface they are using; in this sense they are helpful, but they are not sufficient to determine and assess the usability on their own. On the part of the designer and from his/her viewpoint, different methods should be implemented to find out about the disturbances and annoyances the users experience while using the web pages.
To test and assess the usability of the web pages or to design web pages that contradict with the usability concerns, there are helpful Style Guidelines created by the companies that develop interfaces. For example, the standards specified by companies such as Xerox or Apple have been considerably used by many interfaces up until today. Moreover, one can use the Design Guidelines prepared by people having expertise about the usability studies. An example to the design guidelines is Ten Usability Heuristics of Jackob Nielsen(2). However, the set of rules presented here will be too general that they alone will not be sufficient to fix the usability incoveniences of a web site. Hence, usability tests are performed.
Many different methods can be implemented while performing usability tests. One of the frequently implemented methods involve a camera that is placed behind a mirror recording the bahaviours/reactions like yawning, stretching, signs of boredom of the user sitting in front of a computer (a visible camera that is directed towards the user may cause disturbance). A second camera that records the display on the screen enables the observer to monitor the inconveniences the user experiences while trying to accomplish the tasks assigned to him/her that may be a task that asks him/her to access an information on the site. Naturally, the next step is to change the design of the web site in such a way that will ease the use and perform other similar tests with different designs and with more number of users.These observational methods are carried out in usability labaratories that are designed solely for this purpose. A simpler method requires the usera to speak the line of thoughts audibly while they are performing the tasks given. This method is called "verbal protocol"(3). The recordings of the sound and the notes taken during tests are analyzed so that one can find out about the incoveniences or annoyances a user experience while using a site. The following criteria are measured in usability tests:
Effectiveness: The rate of errors (the percentage of success)
Productivity: The time extent for completing the tasks assigned to the users
User satisfaction: The responses and comments of the users derived from questionnaires. e.g., QUIS etc.
By determining the effectiveness and productivity criteria in advance, for example, it is possible to experiment the target audience a web site. They can be asked to complete a particular task with 80% success in 25 seconds and the web page design can be improved until the target audience is able to perform the task with those preset goals. Or, the handicaps and difficulties that the users encounter with during the trial may be enumerated and specified in a list to be analyzed later and be fixed. With questionnaires like QUIS etc., the reactions and opinions of the users may be obtained; and the outcome of a questionnaire may be influential in changing the graphical design of the page. There may not exist a straightfoward correlation between the user satisfaction and the usability of a web site. That is to say, users may use a web site that they do not like more efficiently, and they may use a web site that they like with higher rates of incoveniences and a noticeable slowness.
The next article will cover an interesting study carried out at Human Computer Interaction course given by Assoc. Prof. Kürşat Çağıltay of Informatics Institute Information Systems Department. This study is about the usability tests (and its results) carried out for two METU web pages that are designed with different menu structures.
Ericsson H., Simon A. (1993). Protocol Analysis - Rev'd Edition by K. Anders Ericsson Herbert A. Simon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Langenberg, D., N., Spicer, D., Z. (2001). The modern campus. In G. R. Maughan (Ed.). New Directions for Higher Education, Technology Leadership: Communication and Information Systems in Higher Education, no:115. (3-15). Jossey-Bass.
Nielsen, J. Ten Usability Heuristics, http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html
(1) QUIS is a licensed software and a commercial product. For further information about the software, see http://www.lap.umd.edu/QUIS
(3) For further information about Verbal Protocol method, see Ericsson & Simon (1993).