"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Use and Abuse



Whenever you feel an idea you're

trying to promote — Wiring

the homeless! Online baby

surveillance! Reparations for

white people! — is

collapsing under its own gassy

weightlessness, you can still

persuade your audience with a

simple declaration: You're doing

it for the children. The minute

a politician brings out the

wide-eyed innocents as a

compelling reason for backing

some measure, it's a sure sign

the measure has less to do with

the citizens of tomorrow than it

does with the talking heads of

today. Will the honorable

gentleperson's proposal protect,

discipline or just set an

example for our kids? Well,

motion to suppress all further



This naif-and-switch maneuver is

thriving online, where assorted

skirmishes and snits are

generated on behalf of another

group of wide-eyed innocents.


The innocents in question are

the eponymous "users," those

nameless, faceless everymen and

women who are, presumably,

having fits on the floor after

seeing one too many strobing

Flash presentations. It's easy

to feel sorry for the people who

visit websites; unless they've

been sitting in on the meetings

where blow-dried marketing

executives wed brand identity to

increased sales of boats and

boating accessories, users have

no idea that they're only valued

for what they can spend at a

website, and they're blissfully

ignorant of the industry

contention that the average web

surfer is ... well, ignorant

enough to be gulled by pricey

ads and shiny graphics.


Enter the usability advocate.

These noble animals roam the web

singly and in packs, putting

forth the idea that the folks

about to be separated from their

discretionary income deserve to

do so in the most comfortable

manner possible. It's a

compelling argument, and one

that's worked for Apple time and

again: people will spend money

so long as you convince them

they're doing so on a smart

product that plays to their

innate intelligence. The real

trick is designing a product

that simultaneously arouses

users' fears that they're really

not that smart, and soothes

those woes by reassuring them of

their innate intelligence in

choosing the product. Apple's

managed this nicely: if the user

really were comfortable with the

powerful inner workings of his

computer, why would he be

bothering with a GUI when he can

blissfully bend the kernel of a

command-line OS like Linux or




Ostensibly, the usability

advocate works in the interest

of those who don't want to look

on the essential horror at the

heart of the computer — or

for that matter at the heart of

a website designed to make its

founders rich. A usability

guru's job is to harp on bad

people for building sites

designed to drive traffic

elsewhere, all in the name of

making things easier for the

user. It's a principled mission,

but one that's deeply flawed for

two reasons.


First of all, there's no reining

in a website designer gone mad,

especially when he can justify

the insanity by uttering the

invocation "brand identity." Big

companies are about as

interested in how comfortable

users find their site as they

are in restoring the Ten

Commandments of God. How users

read and perform tasks online

takes a backseat to a company's

driving question: How can I make

sure this customer irrevocably

associates this site with my

product? The nature of the

association takes a backseat to

the simple victory in

searing a company's identity on

the hapless user's memory. To

paraphrase the good folks at

Procter and Gamble, whose new

site Reflect.com requires

first-time users to fill out a

couple dozen screens' worth of

forms before even permitting

them to partake of overpriced

bath goods, it's all about a

"revolutionary concept," not the

actual implementation. So long

as users are convinced of the

merit of a brand-name

revolution in bubble bath, they

won't bother to question why the

revolution can't be streamlined.



Unfortunately for usability

folks, the branding blitzkrieg

seems to be working. Customers

don't shun sites that make a

simple transaction difficult; they just

bitch and moan about the

obstacles standing between them

and the brand-name affirmation

of their intelligence. Most

computer users remain firmly

convinced that there is no such

thing as a dumb computer design,

only dumb users. And so web

surfers assume that a hectic,

browser-crashing mess isn't a

waste of server space but a

pulsing sign telling the user he

just doesn't get it.


This is the second shoal upon

which usability experts will

founder: user behavior. Thanks

to decades of bad design, users

are convinced that complex tasks

aren't worth doing unless

they're worth doing awkwardly.

If something is easy, there must

be something wrong. At first

blush, the fear of efficiency

might appear to work against

would-be online service vendors:

who's going to conduct their

investing online when it's

simpler just to visit your

broker? Fortunately, doing a

simple task on the Web is

virtually impossible: if the

lack of directions or cues don't

vex a user, the potential to

veer off into the ether by

virtue of alinear hyperlinking



Nothing — not all the clean

sans serif type or tabbed

navigation bars on the Web —

will change the artificial

complexity of surfing online.

Users are excited by the

uncertainty of clicking on

ambiguously labeled hyperlinks

because the results will do one

of two things: propel the user

into unknown territory, thus

confirming their contention that

Bad Technology has struck again,

or finish the job the user meant

to start, thus lending the timid

user a sense of technological

savvy that lasts as long as his

pageview does.


Users are more concerned with

their reaction to technology

than they are with how the

technology actually works, and

thus they're ripe for commercial

harvesting. What better target

audience is there than the one

that's predisposed to accept

technological experiences

uncritically so long as they get

a treat when they hit the

button? Mice have run through

mazes for less.



So long as site design continues

to cultivate a self-love/hate

relationship within each user,

they're lost to those who would

speak for them, those noble few

who imagined a better, more

usable world. The usability

experts should look again — the

Web is eminently usable. It's

just a question of who's using

it, and why.

courtesy of theVixel Pixen
picturesTerry Colon

Vixel Pixen