1.1 This paper summarises the findings of an audit commissioned by Ofcom and carried out by independent consultants. The audit analyses relevant available literature on ease of use issues with domestic electronic communications equipment. This subject is sometimes called usability. The aim of the audit was to produce a report that summarised key usability issues that have been identified for a particular communications platform or service, highlight any research or development work that had been undertaken to address these issues and identify any gaps where issues were not being addressed.
1.2 The content and recommendations of this report represent the views of the authors. The audit is intended to stimulate debate and assist Ofcom in further developing its strategy on usability.
1.3 The audit found that consumers encounter ease of use issues at every stage of interaction with communications equipment. They may not understand what marketing terminology means and therefore be unsure about what to purchase. They may not feel confident about how to connect and set up devices, or fear “breaking” complex equipment if an error message appears or the device stops working normally. All of these, and more, are usability issues.
1.4 Section10 of the Communications Act 2003 gives Ofcom a duty to encourage others to secure:
1.5 In discourse around usability a distinction is often made between mainstream consumer ease of use issues (where products and systems are designed to ensure they are as simple as possible to install and use without presenting unnecessary barriers for all consumers) and accessibility, which is a term that most often describes specific modifications made to equipment so that they can be used by disabled people or those with barriers caused by a particular impairment. However, the focus of this report is on mainstream ease of use issues that benefit all consumers, including disabled people.
1.6 The consultants examined academic papers and studies, as well as work by professional organisations, industry, government and organisations representing older and disabled people. They also interviewed a number of people with an interest in usability issues. The authors were asked to carry out this report over a limited time period, so it was not intended to be a fully comprehensive analysis of the field. Instead, the intention was to provide Ofcom with a very strong indicator of the current issues that are attracting research attention and stakeholder comment. The extensive bibliography that formed the basis for this report is set out in Annex 1.
1.7 The key findings of the audit on ease of use are set out in this paper along with some recommendations from the authors on where gaps may exist in the available research on usability and what further actions Ofcom could take in fulfilling its role to encourage usability in the communications sector. It should be emphasised that at this stage Ofcom has not reached a decision on what its future work on usability might entail. Following a period of engagement with stakeholders and debate on the issues raised in this report, Ofcom will put forward proposals for consultation as part of our annual planning process towards the end of 2007. As a next step, Ofcom plans to hold an event with stakeholders in the autumn.