Usability is the best investment most organizations will never make

A price tag well into five figures is no longer uncommon for a small business trying to build a website. Many medium sized businesses tag another zero on the end of their bills – yet even larger companies with even bigger budgets are often reluctant to spend a small fraction of that to ensure that their sites actually work.

A small but growing industry has been screaming for attention, but is still not getting the respect they deserve. Usability experts have spent years studying how people use the Internet to determine what works and what doesn’t, and even though their invaluable insights are available for a fraction of what it costs to create a site, the vast majority of comapnies never bring one in.

What is truly amazing is how much is spent on websites that look pretty and have fantastic information, but simply don’t work.

Sites like Jakob Nielson’s provide a staggeringly long list of mistakes that can cripple the usability of a site and make it impossibly difficult for visitors to use.

We’ve all seen these basic mistakes hundreds of times:

  1. Inconsistent menu options on different website pages
  2. Search results that don’t indicate where on the site the results are found.
  3. Navigation elements too close to advertising (and are therfore not noticed by visitors)
  4. Too many navigation options that make site navigation very confusing
  5. Text links that don’t change colour when they have been visited

The list goes on and on, but the point should be obvious by now – there are a lot of ways to screw up the structure of a website if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So the next time your organization is creating or revamping their website, be sure that the company you hire has a usability expert on staff, or bring in your own.

Will Usage Based Billing kill Google’s Chrome OS in Canada?

As Google hosts it’s I/O conference this week, I can’t help but watch from Canada and wonder what the future of the Chrome OS will be here.

Google appears to be loading the new operating system with innovative new features and functionality that could make it a very useful tool for many Canadians. But it is a true ‘cloud’ OS, meaning that virtually everything you do on your computer goes through the Internet. So the big question for Canadians is, how will we be able to take advantage of these features when our Internet service providers (ISP) seem intent on limiting the amount of bandwidth we can use (or gouging us on our bills if we use too much)?

For example, Google has already launched a tool to integrate it’s Picasa photo service so your photos are stored in the cloud instead of on your computer. They’ve also released some detailed information showing how printing will work with the new OS, and it will mean that every file will be transferred to the cloud before it is printed.

I can see a lot of interesting possibilities for both of these features, and though I’m not an advanced programmer it is clear to even me that cloud features will eat up an awful lot valuable bandwidth – that will cost Canadians a pretty penny if UBB goes ahead.

So, for Google and especially for Canadian consumers, the big question is what the future of these kind of cloud-based initiatives will be in our country if the ISPs who hold a virtual monopoly on Internet access are allowed to implement UBB. Seems to me like that kind of future would look pretty bleak.

Canadian net neutrality debate misses the point (so far).

The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) will wade this week into the muddy waters of net neutrality. The familiar voices of industry and privacy/tech advocates have started the predictable debate, but it seems that – in true Canadian fashion – both sides are missing the boat.

Canadian Debate heats up

Canadian Debate heats up

Net neutrality is, at its heart, a debate about whether or not Internet service providers (ISPs) should be able to control its customers’ Internet usage, setting limits on how much of certain activities are allowed, and even prioritize sites or ads that come from sponsors of the ISP.

The debate has raged in the US for a few years now (see the condensed version here) but has only heated up earnest recently in Canada.

The debate has become increasingly shrill on both sides, with ISPs winning the disingenuous rhetoric award thus far. In fact, as Michael Geist accurately points out, industry is even trying to claim throttling is required for their very survival – and doing so after recently claiming that throttling of this nature is not even possible.

What is unclear to me about this debate is why the loudest voice from both sides isn’t simple disclosure.

I use the Internet at home to stream HD movies from Xbox live, to backup several gigabytes worth of data, to play video games – collectively making me easily the biggest consumer of bandwidth on my block. So why shouldn’t I pay more than others using the same service, but using it less?

If my ISP wants to throttle how much of their bandwidth I hog, why shouldn’t they be able to do so?

But if they’re going to charge me more or limit my access, they better damn well tell me before I ever sign a contract or get a bill from them. Full disclosure, in language that even the worst luddite can understand, should be an ironclad requirement of allowing any of these measures.

If my ISP tells me they’re going to cut me off at 5Gb of downloads a month, that’s fine – I’ll find a new one. If they want to charge me more because I am such a hog, that’s great – I’ll look around to see if there is a cheaper option for me.

But the cornerstone of this policy has to be openness. The first time an ISP tries to sneak in a restriction or an extra fee, there must be harsh and immediate consequences.

In a debate that is becoming increasingly heated and polarizing, this seems to me to be a solution that should please both sides.

Apple, net neutrality, now Starbucks. Is the internet at risk of becoming a vast wilderness where all anyone can see is the view from the highway?

Starbucks' inadvertantly wades into the net neutrality debate.I have to confess, Iíve sometimes lumped the net neutrality folks in with the tinfoil hat crowd. At first I wasnít convinced net neutrality was really that big of a deal, and even if it was, I generally give corporations more credit than most who comment on these issues online.

But now Iím not so sure.

With Starbuckís announcement earlier this week of a proprietary digital network available in their stores, Iím thinking it might be time to fire up my own tinfoil hat.

Donít get me wrong, I think Starbuckís network is a great offering for its customers, but it further fragments an internet that is becoming more and more limiting.

If you own an iPhone or an iPad, and especially if you develop for them, youíve already seen how limiting these platforms are. If you donít completely adhere to all of Appleís often arbitrary developer rules (and sometimes even if you do) youíll end up with an app that languishes in the wilderness because itís not allowed in the app store. As a user of these devices, obviously you can use safari to go anywhere on the web, but I can count on one hand the number of users I know who use the devices that way.

Then thereís Googleís recent loss to the telecoscollaboration with Verizon in the US on wireless internet. Sure they came out swinging in defense of an open, unbridled internet Ė but only if you stick to wired networks and donít venture out of the house onto a wireless carrier.

Apple continues to limit their customer's freedom.With Starbuckís digital network yet another huge company is limiting access to web content, this time based on physical location rather than device platform. Their new network offers a range of content supplied by their partners and tailored to your geographic location, but itís only available inside their stores.

Iím not entirely sure this is a bad thing Ė at least at this point. Apple is right when they say their apps make their devices more secure than, say, Android phones. And Starbucks offers free internet Ė which is awesome Ė so adding additional and unique content to that offering might not be anything to get upset over.

But itís certainly a trend worth watching, since I love the view from the highway, but at some point if you canít hike into the wilderness anymore weíll all regret it.