One definition:

“If you describe something such as a machine or system as user-friendly, you mean that it is well designed and easy to use.”

(Collins English Dictionary)

The term “user-friendly” came up in a recent conversation I had about a website and it got me thinking. No, not like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and “quality”. Quality is easy to recognize but very difficult to define.

I had spent four years developing and maintaining the website in question, adding features and articles. The site, when I took it over as a volunteer working at a small museum, was a single index.html page with a few nifty animations and three or four images. When I turned it over it had grown to dozens of pages and hundreds of images, a blog, a volunteer scheduling calendar, seven slideshows, some links to downloadable files, seven lengthy historical articles and numerous social media, map and financial links along with the prerequisite contact, event and hours information. I have to admit that I was quietly proud of my work and had even received the odd unsolicited plaudit from other museum members and distant site visitors.

Now that I am no longer involved in developing and maintaining the site, there are rumblings about switching to something more “user-friendly”, presumably Wix or WordPress. It got me thinking about what is meant by user-friendly, and how that meaning evolved over the 20-plus years I was involved in teaching, training, consulting, and programming and application development.

Who is the “user”?

I first got interested in programming in the mid-1990s. This was the heyday of Windows programming, a kind of Wild West of software development when every stationery store had a revolving rack of software on CDs. All you needed to install some good or bad software on a computer running Windows 3.11 was an executable file and the vbrun.dll.

At the time I was a product manager for a large American manufacturing company. My product line was heavy truck brakes and I was trying to help the people on our order desk. It was pretty straight-forward: the order desk staff were the users. My first project was a simple VB application to help them spec out a trailer axle from the requirements they got over the phone from a customer. It was just a series of questions that built the model number to be ordered to fit the requirements.

I had already spent some time learning the VBA macro language for Excel 5, so VB itself was not that much of a stretch with the help of some night-school classes. My next project involved a part number cross-reference tool. A common call to the order desk went something like this: “We are using your competitor’s part number ABC-123. Do you have an equivalent part we can buy from you instead?” One does not have to be involved in rocket science to understand how important it is to answer this question quickly and accurately. Before I started, the order desk person would have to write down the number, put the caller on hold, and scramble over to a wall rack of catalogues thick as phone books to do a manual lookup, then write the number down and get back to the phone. My finished product allowed the order desk to enter the part number and find a match immediately. The order desk guys bought me beers... (BTW: I was reprimanded by head office for installing software without their permission.)

Fast-forward a few years and I had completed a commerce degree majoring in business information systems, had my own consulting business, and was teaching night-school myself.

My Introduction to the Software Engineering course I taught was all about the users:

   • identifying user needs
   • getting user input
   • involving users in the testing process

The textbooks were all user oriented:

   • Interaction Design: Beyond Human-computer Interaction
   • UML for the IT Business Analyst: A Practical Guide to Object-Oriented Requirements Gathering
   • Joint Application Development
   • About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design
   • User and Task Analysis for Interface Design
Over the next few years, as desktop application development faded and web application development mushroomed, a tectonic shift was happening. It was no longer about “identifying user needs” in a closed, corporate environment where you could actually interview users and get feedback on test releases. It became “who are the users?” -- not an easy question to answer in a world with billions of connected potential users for your fledgling “app”. Smartphones replaced desktops, and Google Play replaced the revolving rack of software on CDs. It is now a kind of Wild West for web application development.

What constitutes “friendly”?

There used to be an old “3-click” rule for desktop development. Users should not have to click more than three times to complete a task. Complicated tasks should employ “wizards” with step-by-step screens and “Back” and “Next” buttons. Screens should be designed for readability. Mistakes should be made impossible.

The flow of the application was based on the steps in a manual process that the application was replacing. Terminology used in the application matched, as much as possible, the terminology of the users.

Entire software packages like RoboHelp were employed to create indexed help content to access with a keystroke from the application (remember, back then most computers did not have a fast internet connection – or an internet connection at all...)

Today’s “friendly” web pages emphasize nice graphics, minimal text and sparse layouts, all of which scale down to smartphone screens. Friendly web pages employ cookies to remember previous choices; they remember logins to avoid having to use that dinky virtual keyboard; they keep data overhead low to avoid big data plan surprises; they do not display flashing ads.

Doing a web search for “user-friendly web page development” will return lots more useful advice:

All the advice contained above is about making a website more user-friendly for site visitors, not making it easier for site designers to create the site and add content to it.

“User-friendly” CMS

There are three major Content Management Systems (CMS) powering websites: WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal by order of popularity. All three are free. Many hosting services offer automated installation routines. All claim to be deployable to some degree with no coding. You may wonder how these products can survive if they are free. All offer a community of helpful users manning help forums. Many community members can do the heavy-lifting for a fee when the “no coding” part becomes a mirage. Many more make a living designing all the beautiful templates and useful plug-ins that make these tools actually usable.

WordPress trumpets the “the freedom to build anything you want”. Somewhat more technically challenging, Joomla! claims to be “user friendly, extendable, multilingual, accessible, responsive, search engine optimized and so much more.” Drupal, the most advanced, aims more at experienced web developers who “... use Drupal to create real-world enterprise solutions”.

“Easy” isn’t easy

Although it is a major hurdle for a new organization to get a website up and running, maintaining and improving it then becomes the ongoing challenge. Frequent site visitors will lose interest if the site remains static for long periods of time. Although a CMS will make the initial process of creating a functional website doable, adding more functionality and security usually involves tools like JavaScript and that scary “coding” that everyone seemingly wants to avoid.

So back to my original question: Who is the user?

If your idea of the user is the person tasked with doing periodic updates to your site, then I suppose you haven’t looked beyond to the real users, the actual end-users: your site visitors.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What seems user-friendly to the person doing the “no coding required” updates is not necessarily going to result in a site that your site visitors find user-friendly. In fact, your site might come off as generic -- based on a template like many other sites they have visited.

If, on the other hand, you want a site that is more than just a brochure and you are not willing to research and elicit feedback from site users, if you do not have the time or inclination to learn about user-centred design and website usability, then perhaps you should consult with a professional.