By Kara Pernice
MUNICH, Germany, December 4, 2000. The booming economy in the United States has encouraged many usability professionals there to leave their comfortable jobs at large or safe organizations, and join the ranks of the consultants. When talking with many World Tour attendees in Munich, we found that Americans are not alone in this trend. European consultants discussed their strategies for evolving successful consulting practices, and the challenges they face in doing so.
Olivier Wiener is one man who left a large computer company and started a consulting firm, C2SP, (Consulting, Strategies, Solutions, Project), in Geneva, Switzerland. One of the issues he frequently sees in his work is that goals and plans for Web sites are not thoroughly done before they are built and go live. "I look at the Web site and based on what I see, most of the time, I can see there is no strategy behind it... [one company] did a Web site not because they had a strategy behind it. They did it as a reaction to their competitors," he said. "I want to bring a strategy. I help them think of a strategy."
Wiener helps determine these strategies through a usability and strategy knowledge base he has accumulated. "I have been collecting a lot of best practices. I have some 120 best practices... We do the strategy and organize it using the best practices." In addition to strategy, he also looks at the menacing usability issues with Web sites. Some areas he looks at are: "...if their site is compatible with browsers, the ease of download, ease of use, broken links... I'm looking at high quality content. I put myself in the shoes of the client, investor, neighbors of the company, those kinds of people."
What happens next with the usability information is the more difficult part. Many usability professionals will agree that being the bearer of bad news can be a difficult role, and it's not any easier when you are a consultant. Wiener said, "Basically, it's hard to go to them [clients] and tell them their Web site sucks and they have to change it... They always have many, many arguments."
Sabine Musil, Project Leader for New Technology at Generali Service AG, a large insurance company in Austria and Eastern Europe, agrees, saying, "People are afraid. It's their baby and they don't want to hear me say this button should be moved because it is what people are used to." And, when usability is not yet a well-known word or concept, it adds to the complexity of the bearer-of-bad-news situation. Musil said that in some parts of Europe, usability is still a very new concept. "Usability, at least in Austria and where I am currently working in Italy, is an unknown concept. They have heard the word usability but for them it means quality control," she said. "To some extent in terms of usability I am still a lone wolf." Wiener had a similar reaction, saying, "There is no sensitivity yet in Europe for usability, at least in Switzerland."
Svein Olnes, a Researcher at Western Norway Research Institute in Norway has had clients ask for usability evaluations as part of the package. "We do some research projects and we have clients who ask us to usability test – to review the sites," he said.
Svein Olnes and
Olnes said an important design challenge they face is how can they help clients make their Web sites visible through the quagmire of the Web? He said, "We have been working with this question for a couple of years, related to our projects. We operate some Web services ourselves. We use these services to test visibility – how to be visible on the Web." After he asked Jakob Nielsen a question about this problem at the Main Event, he commented, "I think Jakob Nielsen had some good points. I think it is quite related to usability because in the construction of the site, you decide very much if it will be visible on the Web and how it will be presented."
Wiener has seen the same issue many times. He explained one scenario, "I had the director in front of me and the marketing person. I said, 'Cool, you are well placed on the search engines.' But when I click the link, it says the page cannot be found.' I showed it to them and they were like, 'Oh.' Shocked."
Olnes attributes some of the unfortunate lost Web pages to a particular way of designing sites. "Dynamic pages normally hosted in a database are our main problem. One thing we recommend is be very careful if you use a database as the fundamental back-end to your Web site. That is very common. We have some research that one-third of all Web sites in Norway use databases for their Web sites."
Terje Aaberge, who works on projects with Olnes agrees, saying, "We advise clients: If you want to be seen by the search engines, then you shouldn't put your site in a database." Olnes also warns, "You will not be visible on the Web unless you do something. You have to compensate." One method Olnes recommends for doing this is, "Use a combination of dynamic and static pages. That would mean at certain times you dump your information in the database into logical pages." Olnes is hopeful that this work-around will soon no longer be necessary. "I think this XML development will hopefully solve many of these problems. Right now I think this is a big issue."
From the client's perspective, Musil discussed what she expects from hired consultants. "The least I can expect from a consultant is the benchmarks. We don't expect them to be visionaries. I would like consultants to do usability tests."
From a consultant's perspective, Wiener said he thinks being more diplomatic when working with clients could be positive. "Jakob Nielsen's notes are quite aggressive. 'I am fed up with slow websites.' I guess he is too. So far when I have been talking to clients about my findings about their website, I have been quite aggressive. Maybe that's not the right approach. Maybe I am going to be less aggressive because they have been working on it. It's their baby.... They have pages that are 100 K and people don't want to hear that no one will want to surf on their web site because of it… They spent a lot of money on agencies to make the site, so they just don't want to realize it."
During the Closing Panel discussion, one attendee inquired about in-house usability departments versus using outside consultants, and the experts had some insightful comments. Both Tog and Brenda Laurel agreed that it can be very positive for usability specialists within organizations to have reputable outside consultants as allies. This can give development teams a different perspective, and can give more credibility to usability as a function, and the role of the internal usability professional. Don Norman added, "In general you have to look at the core competency and mission of the company. Those that relate to the core should be done in-house." And, Jakob Nielsen urges people to take the reigns in the usability process, saying, "We have to have design and usability working together. Long-term work has to be your own. You have to own your own destiny on the Internet."