Reader as User: Applying Interface Design Techniques to the Web

Usability Testing

For hypertext documents in which the reader/user interacts with a computer system, it is not enough to simply "know your user." Writers and designers need to test their documents for usability by observing audience members using the system. Making changes to the document based on these tests is an effective way of improving the quality of the interface and the effectiveness of the document.

The following syllogism, provided by Jakob Nielsen, clearly demonstrates the need for usability evaluations in hypertext systems:

  • It is possible to evaluate the usability of hypertexts.
  • We do have established techniques which can be used for the measurements.
  • Iterative design on the basis of usability evaluations have improved many hypertexts.
  • Therefore you must perform a usability evaluation if you develop a hypertext. ( Nielsen, 1990 )
Significant research into usability and usability testing has been performed within the fields of Human-Computer Interaction, Interface Design, and Cognitive Science. An in-depth description of usability and the methodology of usability testing is beyond the scope of this paper. However, writers who are familiar with the process of reader-response criticism and read-aloud protocols should be comfortable with asking readers to evaluate the usability of the interface and its means of navigation.

Human-computer interaction practitioners often evaluate usability according to a general list of parameters. Criteria commonly cited in usability literature which may be of use to writers evaluating the usability of hypertexts include learnability, effectiveness, and pleasurability.


  • Can users effectively and efficiently learn how to navigate the document to find the desired information or reach the desired goal?

  • Can users quickly and accurately develop a mental model of how the system works?

  • If the system is used infrequently, will users remember how it works?
  • Does the system provide valuable, useful information with a clear organizational and navigational structure?

  • Does the system help users meet their goals in an
    efficient and effective manner?
  • Does the system prevent users from making errors, or
    allow users to recover from errors easily?
  • Does the system contribute to users' productivity?
  • Is the system enjoyable to use?

  • Do users feel that they are directly engaged in an activity they find interesting, instead of wrestling with a computer system?
Since the early 1980s when the concepts of hypertext and hypermedia became buzzwords, researchers have been investigating the usability and usefulness of hypermedia across a wide spectrum of domains. Specialist conferences and journals were launched, and countless research papers published the results of theoretical analyses and empirical evaluations of hypermedia systems in use.

Then the World Wide Web arrived. Hypermedia has gone global.

Suddenly everyone is a hypermedia designer, making assumptions and decisions about non-linear structuring, users' needs, and the use of different media to communicate.

Do the preceding years of hypermedia usability research have any lessons for authoring, browsing, and retrieving material on the Web?

Are there important differences between the Web and the earlier systems which invalidate past findings?

Is this another case of academic research missing the boat, or have a lot of lessons in fact been learned and disseminated, so that we now see much better hypertexts, and interfaces, than in the early days? (British HCI News 1996)

introduction | conclusion | references