How surprised was I to hear this from a colleague recently who heads up an IT division.

“Usability is an afterthought, if we have time.”

In fact it had my head spinning, so much that I felt a little sick.

Unfortunately many of the software products used by higher education institutions obviously lack the involvement of a use-centered design professional. It is painful to see and have to use some of the products used in higher ed, and elsewhere, that fall severely short of meeting the grade of proper process-flow, design and intuitive response.

Many times, I have come upon web tools that don’t do what’s expected. For instance, not being able to use the back button on the browser on many a college’s jobs postings site. For an example, see, do a search and try to use the browser as you normally would. And what’s sad is a majority of institutions use this for their employee recruitment process.

I could think of many systems that have the user confused about which is the next button to click, what needs to be completed to make the tool do what it needs to do. It’s kind of like the carnival midway fun-house, who knows what’s next if I take a step, perhaps the floor will move, or maybe I’ll be staring at a multitude of mirror images of myself. There’s a serious lack of concern in building these systems to make the user understand what still needs to be done before their submission is valid.

Take for instance a colleague who was in the process of submitting an application for professional certification, and thought she had completed the process by the deadline when she hit submit on the organization’s website. She received confirmation, yet came to find out through returning to the site months later that her application was not completed in time for the deadline, and that five years worth of experience she had not entered because the organization’s website had failed to send up proper flags and checkpoints for completing the application should have ben submitted days ago. She is now planning legal action because of this. Just a simple notation, an alert box, saying, “Your application is not valid until all dates of experience and information is entered” was all that’s needed.

So in web and software development, it is still the Wild West.  Sure, we may have corralled content into content management systems, and everyone knows security is always on people’s minds and an important part of many a website nowadays, but the user experience and the proper use of ***web standards*** to ensure a proper experience in the browser for all users is still an afterthought.

Businesses are  placing so much importance on their websites to take over where paperwork has left off that they’re treating the web as a replacement for years-old tried and true processes without putting thought into whether their system makes sense to their customers and fulfills the requirements that then paper process did.  How often have you gone to your bank’s website and had a confusing, let alone frustrating experience, navigating around their clunky system? And yet somehow, when I see they’re advertising to “Apply for a loan in an instant” that I am somehow going to feel confident in their system accepting and processing my loan when the account interface looks startlingly unlikely to be able to support any transaction of it’s kind.

With all this movement away from paper processes toward the web, I predict in the not so distant future that we’ll see more complaints – and lawsuits – where an organization is at fault for not providing a proper, easily understood website with proper process flows, alerts and notifications.

So then usability and user-centered design will be at the forefront, not an afterthought, as organizations get hit where it hurts the most – in the bank account. Not until then does it seem will we have serious consideration by Information Technology professionals for the users perception and understanding of web-based systems. Until then, it’s the Wild West. Or maybe a fun-house.

Let the user beware.