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Dec 2005 Contents

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World Usability Day in Philadelphia

by Casey Malcolm, Andrew Rubin, and Debra Levin
Refinery, Inc.

How will we meet the usability needs of an aging population? How do gender differences impact design perspectives? How do disabilities and functional limitations affect technology use? How do we start preparing ourselves for a design approach that will address these issues?

These questions were among the many addressed at World Usability Day in Philadelphia on November 3. Sponsored by Philadelphia interactive agencies Refinery and Electronic Ink, this one-day symposium brought together usability professionals, community business leaders, students, teachers, graphic designers and developers to raise awareness about usable design.

Attendees were engaged by a variety of hands-on, interactive events including a Usability Museum, personalized web site reviews and mock usability testing.

Offering a review of an attendee's website.
Offering a review of an attendee's website.
Attendees consider everyday items at the usability museum.
Attendees consider everyday items at the usability museum.
Philadelphia gets a good crowd for the Usability Demonstrations.
Philadelphia gets a good
crowd for the Usability Demonstrations.

The highlight of the event was a presentation by Tom Tullis, PhD, keynote speaker and usability expert. Dr. Tullis, Fidelity Investments Senior VP of Human Interface Design, provided insights on Usability and the Evolution of Technology, or "You Shouldn't Have To Read A User Manual To Ride An Elevator!" Tullis' presentation examined the ways that technology evolves, and how this evolution impacts the usability of familiar products. Tullis gave as an example new high-tech elevators, which are controlled from a building's individual floors and contain no internal buttons, causing significant confusion and consternation for riders.

Tom Tullis, from Fidelity Investments provides insights on, "Usability and the Evolution of Technology, or You Shouldn't Have to Read a User Manual to Ride an Elevator!"
Tom Tullis, from Fidelity Investments provides
insights on, "Usability and the Evolution of Technology,
or You Shouldn't Have to Read a User Manual
to Ride an Elevator!"

Dr. Tullis also dispelled the long-standing myth of the "average user," showing instead how complexly stratified user characteristic really are. As technology becomes more complex, the need for design that considers these characteristics is vital. The need to design for a range of users - taking into consideration age, gender, disability, education, and language - can no longer be ignored.

Much of the focus of Tullis's presentation was on the growing need for usable design by the elderly and the disabled. The elderly are the fastest growing population; in addition, 1 out of every 5 people in the US has a disability. As the elderly represent the population with the highest functional limitations and disabilities, Tullis believes that this demographic may be the one that drives companies to develop usable products.

Are usability professionals prepared to meet his challenge? In Tullis's estimation, there is still much to be learned. Designing for the elderly, the disabled, and those with functional limitations is going to be new to many, if not most, user-centered design practitioners who deal with a limited technology set. Furthermore, most usability professionals rarely have an opportunity to interview or to perform usability tests with participants representing this changing population.

Tullis's conclusion? In order to effectively meet the needs of a highly heterogeneous population, it is imperative that usability professionals develop a deeper understanding of the various demographic and psychographic segments using their products. Only then will practitioners be able to build in intelligent and easy-to use features that allow users to fully accomplish their goals. Furthermore, those involved in the field of usability need to take an active role in making the right kind of evolutionary changes happen.

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