NN/g News

Strategic Survivors Flourish Down Under

March 1, 2001

By Marie Tahir

Jakob Nielsen mingles with attendees Tog advises attendees on how to keep a user focus
Jakob Nielsen mingles with attendees Tog advises attendees on how to keep a user focus


SYDNEY, Australia, March 1, 2001. Many attendees in Australia talked about the challenge of being geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Although some attendees felt that Australia's lonely position on the map doesn't affect them, many more talked about the challenges of staying in touch-both with their customers and with the worldwide design and usability community. Overall, several attendees' stories reflect a movement towards strategic usability , rather than purely tactical usability.

Photo of Colleen Dancer, Honeywell
Colleen Dancer,
Honeywell Ltd.

Colleen Dancer, a usability engineer at Honeywell Ltd., says one of her biggest issues is "Being in Australia, it's very expensive to go to overseas conferences. Australia is such a big place, there's not a huge population of usability professionals." Colleen said because of the physical distance, she doesn't get a chance to mingle with her fellow usability colleagues much. Coming to the NN/g World Tour helped her to realize how many commonalities she shares in her job with fellow professionals: "We (Australians) think we're more behind than we are."

Photo of Graeme Laycock, Honeywell
Graeme Laycock,
Honeywell Ltd.

Graeme Laycock, User Experience Team Leader at Honeywell, Ltd., agreed with Colleen that the geographical isolation in Australia leads to one of his biggest challenges: "the difficulty we have recruiting... there aren't a lot of qualified usability engineers available ...apart from the attractions Sydney has to offer, we can't compete with the compensation [in other countries]." In his ten years at Honeywell, Graeme has successfully leveraged this challenge, by training others in his company in user-focused practices : "What we try to do as a culture is not make [user focus] separate, we integrate." Graeme runs courses for every developer who comes to Honeywell. Colleen and Graeme talked about grabbing engineers on their first day in the door, getting them to sit in on user testing, and training them from the beginning on how to be user focused. Graeme talked about how this approach solves both his headcount challenges, since more people in the company are participating in user research, and eases the politics of usability: "With that close involvement, you get buy in." Graeme has hand selected user advocates from different functional groups in the company who have show an aptitude for synthesizing user research and has created an organizational model that has dual reporting into both user experience and development teams .

Graham and Colleen were among the very few people I talked to in Asia and Australia who use field studies regularly in their early design process. Graeme talked to me about how critical this research is to Honeywell's product line, because of the high stakes involved in getting usability wrong: "Our usability issues are pretty real. You don't want to blow up a plant or risk international security at the airport... it's a lot more risky than not getting your email out."

Several attendees hope to be able to learn techniques from the World Tour to champion usability: "there's still real confusion out there about what is good website...we've just undertaken a new design and a lot of it is crap...there's no underlying philosophy...it needs to be refined over time...but because the Web is so new we don't have good design philosophy ." More concerning is when companies don't even realize that they need a good design philosophy for the Web, and think they can just repurpose content: "A little bit of knowledge is dangerous...people feel they know a little bit from design, like brochure design, and then start applying it to the Web." Attendees said they still face resistance to building in good design from the beginning, and more often hear "Don't worry, we can fix it up later."

Photo of Chris Bate, Tourism Victoria
Chris Bate,
Tourism Victoria

Several attendees mentioned localization challenges , since they often design sites for non-Australians. Getting international testing budgeted is a steep challenge, because of the high cost in time and travel. Chris Bate, Manager of Tourism Online at Tourism Victoria, talked about the challenge of coordinating eleven worldwide offices , including Los Angeles , London , Frankfurt , Tokyo , Taiwan , and Singapore . Chris says the toughest challenge is getting these efforts appropriately focused: "[often they're] talking about the language variant ...I'm trying to get them talking about the market variant ." Chris understands that localization issues run much deeper than simple translation can address, and he's concerned about how to get adequate feedback from the applicable markets.

Photo of Jeff Langdon, Dept. of Human Services
Jeff Langdon,
Dept. of Human

Jeff Langdon, Manager from the Department of Human Services, agreed that there are limitations to the international feedback you can get without getting out of Australia. Jeff talked about research that they've done using Australia's ethnic communities to try to learn about design issues that might be culturally sensitive. He said this research was criticized for being too "high polish" rather than "low polish," meaning the local community was not representative of the larger country they originally came from.

Zef Fugaz, a consultant at Synergy International in New Zealand , came to the Introduction to Usability tutorial so that he'll learn to "do it properly." He told me "until now, I did it by gut feeling." Zef explained how at his company "we're trying to formalize the process...make it part of everything we do...part of every budget."

Photo of Zef Fugaz, Synergy International
Zef Fugaz,

Until recently, Synergy did user testing primarily for sites they created for clients from scratch. Recently, however, this has started to shift, as clients have started to bring them their preexisting sites "to clean them up...Now it's time to realize it's not just information here...it's time to make money...I have to rework the content." In the past, Zef said they would get funding for technology, but now clients are starting to invest in content design .

The sold-out crowd in Sydney during a break
The sold-out crowd in Sydney during a break
Luice Hwang, Jakob Nielsen, Bruce Tognazzini, Marie Floyd Tahir: Members of Nielsen Norman Group taking a break during the conference
Members of Nielsen Norman Group taking a break during the conference. From left to right: Luice Hwang (Project Manager for International Usability Testing), Jakob Nielsen , Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini , and Marie Tahir (Senior User Experience Specialist and your faithful correspondent).