A part of the work within the RESCUE project has the goal to develop a web based tool for journalists working with social media during crises. The idea is to help journalists to find what they are looking for, when they are digging into the huge amounts of information spread on social media platforms just after a crisis has occurred.
One of the key concepts in the tool development process is what is called usability. So we asked one of the project co-workers, Jocke Högväg from MediaCity at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, to explain what this is.
– Well, usability is about to what degree someone can use a system efficiently. Take for example an ATM – in that system, usability is about how easy it is to put in your card and add your code, and to get your money. So bad usability is all those systems that make you frustrated.
Jocke explains that usability is a part of a more general school of thought related to tool and systems design, called user-centered design (UCD). This is the whole method from the beginning to the end of a design process, starting with mapping the users’ needs before doing any actual tool design.
– This is all about to think first, then act. And it’s difficult to get a good idea about what the product goals are without actually talking to the users.
This seems like common sense, and like something one would think is carried out as a part of most tool development projects. However, many companies still choose to let their programmers start designing a prototype with quite limited knowledge about the users, and to wait with their usability tests until the tool is almost finished. And this, according to Jocke, can become an expensive strategy. If a company then finds itself stuck with a product the intended user finds hard to use and inefficient, it must either spend more money on re-design or release a product that will frustrate its users.
So, what about the tool for the RESCUE project then – a tool meant for journalists, a user group that will be stressing over deadlines and huge amounts of information during a crisis? Usability becomes even more important in tools meant for this kind of use, says Jocke Högväg.
– The user has a higher level of stress, which means that it becomes more difficult to make decisions. Therefore, the system needs to be very easy-to-use to give the user an overview of the situation and not get in the way of the decision-making.
– Also, since a lot of things are happening at once, clear error prevention strategies are needed. One example is that, to minimize the risk for mistakes, you don’t want to place buttons with very different functions next to each other in the system. We can learn a lot from for example how aircraft cockpits are designed to prevent these kinds of errors, Jocke says.