Usability in the communications sector
4 June 2008, BT conference centre, London
Under the Communications Act, Ofcom has a duty to promote the development and availability of easy to use consumer equipment. The British Standards Institute (2005) defines inclusive design as "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible…without the need for special adaptation or specialised design." This event aimed to encourage debate about how to promote usability and to explore the themes of inclusive design and design for all, as part of developing an Ofcom strategy on usability.
Key themes and issues
- Inclusive design is good design
- Usability affects everyone but is particularly relevant to older and disabled people
- There is a commercial prize for manufacturers who get usability right
- People don't buy on usability - they experience a lack of usability. Consumers need information to be able to make informed choices - initiatives such as labelling schemes can help
- Usability should be a key part of consumer testing
- It can’t be a bolt-on – it has to be considered from the start of the process
- The Government is committed to digital inclusion and wants to engage with stakeholders about how to deliver this
- Switchover offers great benefits but also increases complexity
- We should not distinguish between mainstream and specialist equipment. However, there are no 'one for all’ solutions
The policy context
The inclusive design toolkit
Electronic programme guides
- installation and Instructions
- everyday use
- advanced use
- ‘I lost my remote control’
- pressure to get the product out to market first, to target the higher-spending early adopters
- The international nature of some businesses giving limited ability to impact design, some products are badged or branded and made overseas.
- Responsibility. Someone who is well connected in the company having responsibility for the needs of older and disabled people
- Interfacing successfully with stakeholders and budgets for the user research
- Effective data capture in customer service and management systems
- Dedicated initiatives so organisations know where they are in relation to the accessibility of their products and then therefore that can form the basis of an action plan to make things better
- Guidelines and handbooks, recording the knowledge that is in people’s heads - valuable to the organisation and therefore to older and disabled customers if it is written down and there is access to additional in-depth information.
- Actionable advice about how to improve the usability and accessibility of the products and services.
- Partnership with representative groups, usability and accessibility in purchasing and procurement
- Financial incentives and tax benefits specifically of VAT arrangements, in relation to procurement
Panel discussion - promoting usability
- The big brand manufacturers spend time and money on testing products with user panels. But do they spend much time on assessing whether or not disabled or older people can access products?
- Human factors testing needs to be integral, not bolted on, if a product is to get a usability seal of approval
- Are there sector differences, for example between people buying mobile telephones and those buying domestic appliance communities?
- The speed of bringing products to market and the need to please shareholders are factors that work against usability
- There are lots of products but not necessarily a lot of choice on the market at the moment
- Sales figures don’t indicate how many people walked out of the store because they didn’t like anything that was for sale. Informed consumers can influence the market, not just be marketed at
- The benefits of usability include things like customer satisfaction, brand reputation and reducing the number of complaints after the sale. If customers are looking for usable equipment, it will act as a more efficient differentiator between good and bad products
- Ofcom does work in the area of usability because it is an organisation working in the public interest and have a specific duty to do so. That is not the case with manufacturers and retailers.
- If consumers are not demanding usability then we need to understand and work with this. Consumer education has the potential to make a big difference but is quite hard to achieve in practice
- It is still very difficult to tell the difference between certain products
- Can usability labelling be mandated so that consumers are adequately informed of the extent to which products are usable and accessible?
- BERR has come up with a scoreboard for digital TV equipment. This sets out in a consistent manner the essential features of each product
- We need to get information to people via the publications they read and also having information available in the shops
- Manufacturers probably accept that consumers are not looking very hard at how usable a product will be when making purchasing decisions. At the same time, retailers do not always welcome people asking to try out products in the showroom, particular for lower value products
- Some people may need to be able to take things home on a trial and to be able to exchange them if they don’t meet requirements
- BT has a network of 'try before you buy' centres so people can go and test out telephony products so they can find one that best suits their needs
- If people spend £200 on something that is not usable they are not going to go out and buy another one; they are going to be annoyed with what they have bought. What about a charter mark on products that indicates that it has passed certain usability tests? This would be good for brand reputation
- From an industry point of view, labelling presents two difficulties. The label takes up valuable space on the packaging and there is also the difficulty of defining objective criteria
- However, if we can give consumers information about usability at the point of sale, then that benefits the consumer and the manufacturer
- People buy things for different reasons, and usability is not the most attractive feature for everyone. But at the same time, no one would want to buy a product they can't use.
- People may not buy on usability but they experience a lack of usability. People buy the product because they like the look of it, and just hope that they can use it
- Usability can develop: remote controls have evolved over the years, with improvements to layout and user experience. We used to joke that only children could programme video recorders, but now Sky+ advertises how easy it is to record two programmes at once. And Sky has invested tens of millions pounds in the advertising campaign, so there are big companies using usability to sell products
- Is it possible to shorten the process by which usability develops, particularly in light of the fact that technical developments are coming around a lot faster now?
- Is the market delivering usability? And is there more that people outside the commercial sector can do to make the market deliver more quickly and more effectively to different consumer needs?
- Research such as that being done by Ofcom is valuable in telling us where the gaps are and is a resource for manufacturers. But is it enough? What are the obstacles to inclusive design and what can we do to address them?
- It would be difficult for legislation on usability to take account of technological change. Educating consumers has the potential to be more powerful
- On the other hand, regulation would provide a level playing field: if everyone has an obligation it means that companies who want to deliver good quality are not at a disadvantage
- If additional regulation about usability is inevitable given our ageing population, then companies who are leading the way will be at an advantage when it happens
- There is currently a campaign for an EU accessibility directive that is being supported by a number of disability charities
- There is a commercial benefit for making manuals clearer. For goods with a small margin such as £20 set top boxes, one after-sales call to the call centre wipes out the profit on that unit
- Some of the most subtle changes can make quite a difference as to how comfortable a product is to use
- Usability is not a destination, it is a journey
- Participants mentioned public procurement, an example of which was the set-top box being procured for the digital switchover help scheme
- Other people mentioned procurement of handsets by mobile phone operators, who have major purchasing power
- Involving users throughout the product design cycle, not just doing user testing immediately before release
- Help senior managers in organisation understand the ROI (return on investment) of doing usability from the beginning of the product development process
- Governance within the organisation developing products. How can we influence this?
- Industry should commit to providing functional equivalence to people with physical or sensory impairments
- Government/industry awards for usable products
- A process of certifying products as ‘all-inclusive’
- Labelling schemes, kite marks or certification of products
- Comparative consumer information
- Pre-purchase demonstrations to enable users to see how useful a product or feature is
- Oblige manufacturers to demonstrate usability to the customer base before purchase decisions are made
- Products need to be usable by a particular user and users need to know how to locate them and to be able to make informed decisions about their purchase.
- Users need help to know what the right products are for them and deciding whether to purchase.
- Informing and educating consumers is a bottom-up initiative to complement the top-down initiatives that are also needed
- Empowering/engaging the public, consumers and user groups by developing a common and accessible language about usability that allows product developers/designers to communicate with everyday people
- Which? and other product evaluations to give a ‘usability score’ for products as well as a features list. Then product managers will take it seriously.
- Device that can have dialogue with user and adjust according to needs
- More integration of products so fewer products needed but make them usable
- Ofcom could bring forward guidance on usability good practice
- Ofcom/the UK government should support the campaign for a European accessibility directive
- Government should require industry to provide functional equivalence to people with physical or sensory impairments
- Bring manufactured goods (including instruction booklets) within the scope of the DDA – this is outside Ofcom’s powers but was suggested by a number of participants.
- Patent application form should require applicant to demonstrate how inclusive design has been mainstreamed into the development
- All software development and design degrees should include ‘user centred design’ or ‘inclusive design’ as standard
- ICT in schools should teach user centred design practices from the start. It will then just become ‘how to do design’ rather than a dark art!
- Offer subsidies to manufacturers to encourage them to produce inclusive design.
- Tax breaks – equipment for disabled people is VAT free
- It’s difficult to make a business case for including features into products that only benefit a small percentage of the market. The answer is an inclusive design approach for the mass market.
- Functional equivalence should be delivered at equivalent prices – this would encourage development of mainstream products able to meeting the needs of a greater range of people
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