Despite the title, this isn't an article about Brooklyn. Actually, it's about something near and dear us all: usability. At least, I assume it's near and dear to all of us, because I keep hearing how important it is. "Sure, it's an interesting site, but how about its usability?" "I was fighting with some usability issues today." "I wasn't too sure about youse ability, but it turns out youse skills ain't so bad."
Sorry about that last one. What I'm getting at here is that while I keep hearing about usability, nobody seems to know exactly what it means, not even Jakob Nielsen. Sure, he wrote a book on the subject, but what he wrote (and quite lucidly) was about the kind of usability which interests him. Jakob raises, often to the point of repetition, very good issues which web designers need to consider. But I'm still left wondering if he covered all the bases.
Consider Macintosh users, for example. There are many sites out there, a lot of them using secure connections, which Mac users can't access because the Webmaster who created the service used ActiveX to make the process work. Since ActiveX isn't available on the Mac, these users can't trade stocks (for example) online. As far as these users are concerned, the site's usability sucks. This despite the fact that the Webmaster may have gone to a lot of effort to make the pages readable by a speaking browser, so as not to shut out his blind clients who use Windows.
Even worse, Opera users often can't get access to secure services because the sites have been scripted to refuse connections from any browser besides Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. So there's a preferences setting in Opera which lets the user change the browser ID string to spoof one of those browsers. It's an interesting usability decision on the part of Opera Software, although it's one I can well understand. If they didn't do this, then they'd get a ton of e-mail from users demanding that they "fix Opera" to work with such and so site. I know the MacIE team gets similar requests, when there's literally nothing they can do.
So we might say that the sites in question have poor usability. Not according to Windows users, though; they think the site is great. Who's more correct? What about people who still use Netscape 1.0? Is it reasonable to accept their view of the Web's usability?
Another way to look at usability is to ask whether or not a site is easy to navigate. Are the main server areas obvious and helpful? Are they someplace that's easy to find? Is there contextual information telling the user where they are in the site's "infospace?" Are search results useful? More to the point, who's answering these questions? I think my personal Web site is intuitive to navigate, but others may disagree. Jakob Nielsen would probably feel that his site is highly usable, but maybe somebody gets lost there trying to find a particular article. Who's right? The user, or the guy who wrote a book about the subject?
Let's be honest: when we ask about a site's usability, what we're usually asking is, "will this site work for me?" That's why I call it yousability, because generally, you want things to work for you. If a site doesn't work-- meaning that you can't get to what you want-- you complain and berate the person who kept you from using it, hopefully until they make things work for you. Once that's been assured and you've got your access, everyone else can pretty much go to hell.
This isn't usually what the experts are talking about, of course. But maybe they should be. Theoretical discussions about user expectations and information theory will take you only so far. Eventually, it becomes germane to turn the discussion to what's going on today, where people are having trouble getting access to information, why they're having these problems, and how to fix the problems. I think maybe that time has come. Such a discussion would serve as a useful insight into what the Web is really like, and how we could make it better for everyone.