The Magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association
By Giaele Roccia
I work for CSI-Piemonte, one of the largest Italian information and communication technologies (ICT) companies. Our focus is the local public service sector, with responsibility for over fifty-four web sites and technology projects for organizations such as the University of Torino, the Region of Piemonte, the City of Torino, and many other public health sites.
Quality of service and user-centered design issues have become a dominant theme for CSI-Piemonte. In 2002, we established the Accessibility and Usability Laboratory to improve the quality of web products and services and to promote the theme of an inclusive information society within its member bodies.
The lab is part of a long-established tradition of focusing on the relationship between people and technology in this part of Italy. In the early 1980s, Olivetti developed the first European laboratory for software ergonomics. Also in Piemonte, other similar laboratories are at work with the Centro di Ricerca FIAT, Telecom Italia, and the Ergonomics Department of the University of Torino’s Psychology Faculty.
About two years ago, staff at the laboratory began to see a need for involving users in the web design process. Laboratory experience, formal training, and professional exchanges led gradually toward user-centered design (UCD) and accessibility testing with disadvantaged users.
The focus on disadvantaged users was also the result of the passage of a law (Legge n.4/2004) that requires public agencies to provide services to citizens with disabilities. The transformation process within CSI-Piemonte found fertile ground in the field of accessibility. Legal obligations were rapidly translated into new work processes which, in turn, led to the rapid turn-around of products and services that meet legal standards.
The same cannot be said for the field of usability. Introducing user-centered design to public agencies—highly structured environments with a strong technological focus—is a complex process involving profound cultural changes. New professional roles need to be introduced, as well as new work flows, changes to scheduling, and different methods in planning services.
These transformations require time and are complex for a number of reasons, which are discussed below.
When it comes to the content of their sites, many agencies still focus mainly on the agency, rather than the citizen who is the audience for their services. Change is occurring gradually as, little by little, agencies come to understand that—beyond driving innovation and quality—services designed with users in mind will also appreciably reduce costs.
In fact, one common problem is that when the design process relies on guessing, without considering the impact on users, projects often need to be completely revised later to fix fundamental errors, rather than requiring only modest changes for continuous improvement. And this, in the long run, has very high costs.
To improve awareness in public agencies about these issues, it is important to complete pilot programs delivered using UCD methodologies. This lets them experience the advantages at first hand.
It has been difficult for a design approach that emphasizes user experience to make headway in organizations that traditionally pay more attention to technological factors. This is clear from a review of Law 4/2004, which is designed to bring the benefits of new technologies to persons with disabilities. To guarantee accessibility, the law requires compliance with twenty-two technical requirements.
For usability, however, although there is an analogous list of twelve points, these unfortunately are not requirements for compliance. The reason for this difference lays in the fact that usability is considered by the legislators as hard to evaluate and verify quantitatively. This view has its roots in the scientific culture that is part of the background of many IT professionals.
In reality, the qualitative approach does provide objective and often irrefutable (although not scientific) indications on which to develop services that consider the user’s human needs and the goals of the agency. After all, a public agency is satisfied when its users—its customers—are satisfied.
Little by little, within companies like ours, IT professionals and others are starting to understand the importance of specialized studies of the relationship between users of services and the services themselves, which is reducing mistrust of, and bias against, qualitative approaches. Clearly, we could make faster progress in this direction if legislators gave to usability issues the same emphasis that they gave to accessibility issues. Law 4/2004 (for the inclusion of users with disabilities) has shown that having specific legal requirements can lead to important results: following its approval, Italy has become one of the most advanced countries in creating accessible websites.
It’s important to point out that in Italy there are very few people working in the area of UCD and evaluation. Moreover, the culture of service quality in the field of interaction design is not as widespread as in other areas of Europe. Even university education in the area of UCD is limited, with an academic approach that does not prepare students to become professionals in the interaction design discipline. There is also a lack of recognition of the specific expertise of human factors professionals: the role is often confused with graphic design.
Despite these difficulties, CSI-Piemonte has created a stable workgroup that applies usability techniques to the production of Web applications. The group is demonstrating itself to be a place for continuous learning, a kind of workshop that operates with a strong sense of shared methods and goals achieved.
Further difficulty comes from the widespread belief that investing in usability raises project costs. As demonstrated elsewhere in the world, when economic difficulties arise, it is an easy budget item to cut.
Our experience suggests that usability is not an added cost, but rather a more equitable redistribution of resources between technological activities and the activities of communication and interaction. The true costs are incurred when products and services go unused because of problems related to poor interaction design.
Most important, the consequences of difficult-to-use tools are resistance to learning and user mistrust, which keep many people from receiving the advantages that new technologies offer. In the near future, agency expenditures for the web will have to prove their worth through intense use on the part of citizens. This will be possible only if supply meets demand: that is, if the needs, habits, and characteristics of users are taken into consideration.
Giaele Roccia works at CSI-Piemonte, one of the largest Italian information and communications technologies (ICT) companies in the public sector. CSI-Piemonte is a consortium of fifty-four organizations, including the Piedmont Region administration, two universities in Turin, the City of Turin, and the Province of Turin, all the provinces in the Piedmont region, several municipalities, local health service offices, agencies, an association of municipalities, and a mountain community. She leads a usability research team that develops innovative user interaction for online public services.
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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.
This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4, 2007.
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