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Usability: mumbo jumbo or magic bullet?

Published on 09/10/03 at 03:35pm

Usability is, broadly, a measure of the time it takes to find and enter a website, and do something useful on it: check a bank balance, buy a CD or make a payment. Or, sooner or later, check your medical records, search for clinical trials and manage your doctor and hospital appointments.

Its also about navigation that is obvious: you don't want to have to think to get from here to there, because it should be obvious. The longer that takes, the lower the usability.

Highly usable sites are effectively transparent: you go there, you do something or you find something out, and you leave. You can't see any problems or obstacles, because they aren't there. Someone has designed them away. This process is a far cry from the cheap-and-cheerful approach to the web in its early days when any fool could build a website (and many of them did). It takes planning, hard work and care, as well as the diplomacy of a summit conference organiser.

An unusable site (which still probably includes 99% of all sites globally) wastes your time, doesn't answer your questions, creates obstacles and is such an unpleasant experience that you will probably never go back there.

Pharma companies, which are still in the early stages of web development, typically just produce brochureware  lots of words, and not much action. You might argue that brochureware sites like these don't need much usability work, to which the obvious answer is that any website longer than a single screen needs an intuitive navigation structure. But as pharma companies start to develop sites that actually have to do things - e-detailing, say, or e-clinical trials - good usability will become more and more crucial to the success of a site.

But usability doesn't just apply to websites, although the spectacular development and improvement of sites over the past five years has been the most visible manifestation of usability.

Handheld devices are becoming increasingly prevalent among doctors and are being used as electronic data capture devices for clinical trials, because they aren't anchored to a fixed point. But their small screens and limited keypads bring in a host of new usability issues that need to be addressed.

If you look through the list below, you may be asking, What's so clever about that? It doesn't look like rocket science. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that much of it is common sense. No, in the sense that common sense tends to diminish in proportion to the complexity of a project. In other words, the more people involved in a project, the more likely it is to go wrong, losing sight of the original objectives.

The other reason usability tends to get lost in the noise is that it is often tacked on as an afterthought. Our approach to usability is to build it into the design from the start. The user is the reason that the website exists in the first place. Lose sight of that and your website is almost guaranteed to fail.

What are the key components of pharmaceutical website usability?

Speed of download

Impressive

  • Each screen appears in 3-5 seconds
  • No large images
  • Careful usability (large files are available on demand only)

Depressing

  • Long pages
  • Large, slow-downloading files which arrive whether you want them or not

Search and find key information quickly

Impressive

  • Careful logical organisation
  • Simple intuitively obvious and usable functions
  • Clear navigation

Depressing

  • Haphazard organisation
  • Uses off-line techniques that are completely inapplicable (linear structure, long pages etc)

Reviewable off-line

Impressive

  • Can download to PDA (iPaq or Palm Pilot)
  • Can respond on PC while it is off-line

Depressing

  • Can only view and respond onscreen and while connected (cf Hotmail)

Up-to-date

Impressive

  • Has current information
  • Always features something new
  • Gives doctors a reason to keep coming back

Depressing

  • Has stale, old and very general information that can easily and more efficiently be found off-line
  • Makes you want to go back stickiness

Makes you want to go back - 'stickiness'

Impressive

  • Users can sign up for e-mail newsletters appearing weekly in their mailbox, reminding them that it is there

Depressing

  • Gets forgotten

Personalised

Impressive

  • Content is focussed on what the user asked for

Depressing

  • Need to wade through lots of irrelevant and unsolicited content to find what you want

Cost

Impressive

  • Only pay for download time, not for thinking or responding time on-line

Depressing

  • Only pay for download time, not for thinking or responding time on-line

Secure

Impressive

  • Provides similar level of security to a bank account
  • No one else can look at my stuff

Depressing

  • Anyone can look at my stuff so I won't use it

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