The “Ought” of User-bility

UI&us posted an interesting piece called, “Can’t Read URLs Some People” last February. This is a great accompaniment to an article I shared with my Google Reader followers on “How Little You Really Know” from Pleasure and Pain.

It really helps to remember that lots of users don’t get from Point A to Point B on the Web by typing in a URL, but quite a few people just use the “Google” field in their browser. So keyword searching ala Google becomes the entre to the Internet instead of direct arrival by Web address (aka URL), a concept which more savvy users get.

It really calls into question how the average user actually uses the Web versus how they are “supposed to” use it.  At lunch, my coworkers and I were just talking about how some of our clients get confused about who is their primary contact for our team.  I wagered that most clients are so focused on getting their job done that they will contact whoever will help them move their task or project forward.  It doesn’t matter if they want print samples and you’re the Web person, if they’ve talked to you once and you were helpful, they’ll remember your name and shoot emails your way instead of your colleague next door who they should email.

I think users navigate the Web the exact same way.

Most users are online to get something done and if it turns out they can reach their objective by typing in intuitive keywords in the little “Google” box at the top right, then gosh darn it, that’s what they’re going to do.  I know a few of us have laughed at search keyword reports that show users typing in URLs into the all-knowing Google to arrive at a Web address, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Who cares that Google is (primarily) a search engine that I get to through a Web browser. This technological distinction makes no difference to the user, but the outcome certainly does. The way people use technology informs how that technology will get used; it doesn’t matter if that’s not the way it was designed to function.

Enter user experience. I think we in the industry need to be a little more flexible in our ideas about what the “right way” to navigate a site (let alone how one should use browser software, computer hardware, or a light switch).  We still need to be deliberate in presenting a solid construct that helps to educate users on how to use a website, but we need to care less about whether or not they know the difference between a text hyperlink and a button.  To be honest, who except us Web professionals really care?

It’s time to get back to basics in providing frameworks that help the user accomplish their goal and allow us to achieve our own business objectives.  When the less important details of Web development begin to become an obstacle to the user’s end goal, then we’ve missed the point.  The users.  Remember them?  The point of what we do is to connect people with ___________. It’s like Mad Libs — you fill in the blank: products, services, community, information, or whatever noun you wish.  When we get caught up in our standards-based, AJAX-heavy, slickly designed, Web 2.0 sites and miss the user, we lose the very essence of the Web. Plain and simple.

Brian Pappagalo responded: Let's get back to the basics... very well put :)

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