CUA of the Month – December, 2007

Chow Sok Mui Murie
"A workable and user-friendly application or Website that best suits its users is critical. 'Bells and whistles' provide a lot of fanciness and that's all one gets."
 
Chow Sok Mui Murie
Senior Creative Consultant
NCS, Singapore

Usability – The New Sexy Moving business outcomes from flash to functional

by Doug Gorney

"During the dot.com era," says Chow Sok Mui Murie, Senior Creative Consultant at Singapore-based NCS, "usability was seen as a drag. Some customers felt that we were asking too many questions – our responsibilities were 'just to build a Website.' They wanted beautiful pictures, Flash, JavaScript, etc., Web pages that looked 'sexy' and 'happening.'

"Thankfully," says Murie, "users have come a long way. Behaviors have changed."

Murie has a lot to do with that. As a senior usability and creative consultant for NCS, a leading IT and communications engineering services provider for the Asia Pacific and Middle East regions, Murie has been developing user-centric interface design for Web and online application projects since the late 1990s.

NCS takes a holistic approach to technology, offering a "one-stop shop" of consulting, development and integration services so that companies can focus on and grow their core business. And their enterprise customers recognize the tremendous value of the solutions NCS provide every area of the business, throughout entire technology life-cycles.

Yet for all that, there was one fundamental concept that enterprise customers haven't always valued – usability. Murie found that explaining its importance was an uphill battle.

"Usability was not well understood in Singapore in the '90s. Clients just wanted to make an impression with fancy stuff like Flash intros and visually attractive content, but the requests weren't always relevant, really. And in the process they compromised speed and usability – download speed suffered, for instance.

"For some time, we had to fight to get them to consider their Web site from the user side, not just the business side."

Murie joined NCS after having spent several years in the advertising industry as a "visualizer" – an art director who conceptualizes and conveys the client's product/services into persuasive ideas in the form of a storyboard. "It's like telling a story," says Murie.

From there, she moved into IT as she picked up the skills of creating Web sites from when the advertising agency's emphasis shifted to Web advertising. In 1997, she brought those skills to NCS – but never forgot how to help the customer tell his story. And what she saw in the razzle-dazzle of the dot.com boom was a bunch of stuff that got in the way of the story.

"Having been in the design industry for quite a while, I noticed many projects where the basics were totally absent, from a usability perspective. Sometimes they resulted in the need for massive re-design, backtracking or repetitive modifications to the Web structure – all these are time consuming and costly."

Bringing enlightenment to Web design clients at NCS took time, too. Nor did "usability consciousness" just dawn on its own. While Murie's visualizing, storytelling experience gave her an intuitive understanding of usability, it wasn't enough. To effectively communicate and implement usable designs, she needed something more.

"I first learned about the Certified Usability Analyst program when [HFI CEO] Dr. Eric Schaffer conducted a session at NCS in 2002. At the time, industry awareness of usability was low here."

Murie knew the way to go was through HFI's CUA training.

"The training was great," she says, "very effective. Now, having been tested and certified by HFI, I have more confidence in addressing usability challenges."

The statistics on usability Murie learned were invaluable in convincing her clients to think through their sites from a usability perspective. She particularly enjoys the user-centered analysis she picked up, including requirements gathering, user profiling and scenarios development.

"All of it gives me the opportunity to enable clients' business needs as well as facilitate end users to learn about their requirement, their work environment and daily challenges. That kind of information allows me to better understand clients' real needs and how some processes need to be re-designed before they can be effective from an online angle."

Murie has also used her training to make usability a more central part of the whole Web implementation philosophy at NCS.

"We have moved our strategy around – we approach clients to apply user-centric design around their Internet and intranet/portal sites, resulting in positive outcomes whether informational or transactional. Now everyone here understands that the essence of an effective Web site or application is to provide intuitive navigation and a memorable user experience that fulfills the needs of its users (clear directions, fast, efficient, with no confusing messages) as well as meets business goals...having that kind of clarity helps us to analyze needs and integrate designs into functions that flow."

Her timing couldn't have been better. The clients who come to NCS are becoming more sophisticated, Murie finds – more and more of them want to develop sites from a perspective of business value rather than sheer "sexiness."

"Nowadays usability is one of the main factors to be considered – you can see that the trend is changing. It's more than just a good back-end structure. Users don't care what's behind the Web site, all the technologies, applications and so forth. They just care whether they can get their work done, their forms submitted, that kind of stuff."

Who knew that kind of stuff could be so sexy?

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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