Internet users unaware of services, features

A study that indicates that lack of awareness and poor usability are the key barriers to a user’s adoption of Internet services from ISPs may provide some relevance to IT managers.

The survey was commissioned by Montreal-based Radialpoint, a provider of managed Internet services to ISPs, and found that nearly half of polled Internet users were unaware of the online security services provided by their ISP. Additionally, almost 70 per cent did not know if their ISP provided music or gaming services, and about one third did not know if their ISP provided any services beside Internet access and e-mail.

Scott Plewes, founding partner of usability consulting firm Maskery, said the results of the study are unsurprising. He said that IT managers who create Web-based systems or applications often hear similar feedback from their customers.

“There are usability issues across the board, whether it’s with PDAs, Web applications, or other high-tech services,” Plewes said. “We see issues with Web applications all the time, partly because it is still a fairly new field from the user interface point-of-view.”

Plewes said that while Web applications are becoming more standardized with clear rules on how they are supposed to behave, there are still a lot of aspects where “people are making it up as they go along.”

Plewes also stressed the need for IT managers to hire the right personnel when trying to develop user-friendly applications.

“Engineers are great at engineering and developers are great at developing because that is what they’re trained to do,” Plewes said. “But, if you want a good user-interface, you need somebody that’s trained in it.”

Kirk Munroe, director of product management at Radialpoint, agreed with Plewes, saying that he’s seen many users continually frustrated when using online tools and services.

“People’s experience on the Internet still just isn’t a very good one beyond browsing and searching,” Munroe said.

He provided an example by citing a conversation he had with a Canadian ISP on their security services.

“I asked them if they knew what percentage of their calls on their security offerings came from install and configuration issues,” Munroe said. “They told me it was around 40 per cent, which is really mind-boggling to me.”

But Plewes said for as many usability and ease-of-use issues seen today, application developers have made vast strides from several years ago. He said that technology industry as a whole is starting to recognize the importance of usability, with companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM putting significant investment in internal and external usability services.

“They’re starting to realize the importance of just talking to users and getting feedback in a scientific way,” Plewes said. “Prior to this, people thought that you could make it usable just by making it look nice. But now they’re starting to realize that they have to make it look nice as well as functional and easy-to-use.”

However, Plewes said that many IT managers, especially those who create Web-based applications and services, have a long way to go and would do well to take a page from a certain Apple device in the news lately.

“The iPhone is a great example for companies to follow,” Plewes said. “Apple clearly spent a lot of time and effort on the interface and getting user feedback when creating it.”

And according to Plewes, even Microsoft, which has not been known for its user friendliness, has tried to move toward a better user experience. “If you remember, the ‘XP’ in Microsoft XP stands for experience,” Plewes said.

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