I am half way through reading Steve Krug’s, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.” First published in 2000, “Don’t Make Me Think” is a practical guide for web designers, providing advice congruent with the title. I approached the book curious if web design principles from 2000 translated to design appropriate for edtech applications in 2012. The answer is a resounding ‘sort of.’
Hundreds of hours of usability testing in which Krug observed over the shoulder of users attempting to navigate through websites led him to the conclusion that, in general, people largely “muddle through” when trying to accomplish a task on the web. In the same way that most people probably attempt to put together their Ikea furniture by guessing what fits together and beginning to assemble it before looking at the directions, web users jump in and start clicking to find what they want with little regard for all but the most obvious of navigational cues.
“Muddling through” knows no subject boundary. Educators and learners are perhaps more likely to muddle through an edtech application than someone trying to buy shoes from Zappo’s. The educator is pressed for time, and in most cases, does not see the implementation of a new edtech tool as her primary purpose. She is innovating, and unless she has determined a priori that this tool is essential to her practice, the educator will casually muddle through the site, attempting to determine what educational need it might fill. In her mind is a scale. She is weighing the pedagogical benefit of the tool versus the time to train her learners to use it. Tip the scale in either direction and the decision becomes an easy one. For example, it would be really cool for students in her US History class to learn to mix studio quality music so that they can make songs about each of the past presidents in ProTools, but she is not going to take six weeks to learn how to use it herself and then another twelve to teach her students. She might, however, teach them the basics of Audacity and have them make simple podcasts.
Web-Based Computing Brings Teachers to the Ball
Krug writes, “Users like conventions even if designers find them annoying.” Edtech before 2009 did not contain a whole lot of conventions that teacher users really liked. Unless a teacher considered a two decade-old dos interface comforting and familiar, edtech applications lacked usability conventions in a major way. Conventions in the consumer web change fast, but are usually widespread. Most edtech applications prior to 2009 were not web-based. Basic concepts like buttons for links, were a major improvement for most teachers as recently as three years ago. Cloud-based computing is an incredible advance for all industries, but for educators it is the glass slipper that brings us to the ball.
The reason, in part, that edtech trailed so far behind other economic sectors in adoption of new technologies is that technology in education has largely been considered ancillary. Many schools replace computers with the same frequency that they replace textbooks; about every seven to ten years. This is at least three and probably four significant movements in the world of technology. Cloud-based computing is limiting the lag this has on new edtech adoption, and is probably the single most significant factor in our current edtech boom. Build your applications for the web so that our IBM 386 machines can access them. My tongue is in my cheek – sort of.
Breadcrumbs Versus Guess What’s in my Head
“Every page needs a name.” and other cues for navigating a site are now standard practice for web designers. The concept of breadcrumbs is worthy of mention, though.
Breadcrumbs show the page hierarchy that leads you to where you are right now. In the educational setting this is often overlooked in help menus for complex products like video or audio editing software. Indented indexes serve this purpose in a visually different way. A simple search-based menu, however, leaves the user wondering if the author of the help section means what we think he means when he says “forms.” For students, breadcrumbs could be helpful for gamified learning applications. If a student has navigated himself into a corner, it would be helpful for him to be able to retrace his steps and choose another path at an appropriate junction. Hitting the reset button and having to go back to the beginning altogether can be frustrating. Adaptive math software platforms frequently accomplish this with a virtual world that students navigate. Children quickly learn how to get into and out of the various landscapes where they can seek their treasure or save the mermaid or whatever. The breadcrumb can be basic linear text or it can be a sophisticated visual hierarchy, but it must be present throughout your site. Time wasted trying to find your friends in the World of Garfan is fine when playing games at home, but not in the classroom. If it isn’t obvious where a user is and where he has been, then you are making the same mistake many educator’s do when they ask a question with a blank at the end. We call it, guess what’s in my head.
Interaction Engineering is Essential
It doesn’t matter how cool your technology is. It doesn’t matter if in your heart you are certain that you are building a game changing tool for education. If users don’t feel comfortable in the room, they will leave. Sadly, I have seen this many times. As a power user and beta addict, I regularly come across technology with significant potential that sits idle on some server because the interface is unprofessional or worse, it is difficult to dig into the rabbit hole where the application exists within the site. I have often consulted with engineers who planned to leave the UI or UX until the very end of the development. For some applications, this is too late. The user experience is not simply defined by color choices and page hierarchies. A harmonious user experience is accomplished with design that is integrated with the core technology. If you are a hardcore back-end engineer, and you do not yet have an appreciation for the importance of user experience, perhaps it will be a smaller pill for you to swallow if you rephrase UX design as Interaction Engineering. No charge for that.