ERCIM News No.20 - January 1995

Usability in Electronic Publishing

by Lon Barfield

Electronic publishing is one of those catch-all terms that abound in information technology. Slightly less glamorous than "multi-media" or "hyper-media" but just as vague it is generally taken to mean the distribution of information by electronic means, usually involving computer technology as the carrier for new publishing media. As such it is an umbrella term including existing disciplines such as multi-media and hyper text. Everything from CD-ROMS to the World Wide Web. Compared to conventional publishing it is a huge leap in complexity and this means that there are many issues that play a part; standards for the new media, security, synchronisation of dynamic media, distribution. and so on. One key issue that tends to be overlooked in the drive towards more technical goals is that of the usability of electronic documents.

Usability problems are well known in many existing disciplines. Everyone has come across doors that open in unexpected ways, photocopiers that work according to some strange alien logic and computer software that behaves as though it's been put together with a shovel. Happily designers of established interactive technologies are now starting to address usability design in a serious manner.

Electronic publishing is a new discipline where the above has yet to happen, and it is a discipline fraught with new problems. My favourite illustration of the complexities of user interface design for electronic publishing is to look at railway timetables. All national railway companies have them. The railway companies employ a team of graphic designers to get the job of good design right. They look at how it is done in other countries, they decide on the splitting up and presentation of the material and how to arrange it so that the public can quickly get the information they want. They even decide on the colours and fonts that are to be used. It's quite a job to get it all right and to end up with a product that fulfils all the needs.

Now compare this to electronic publishing. The amount of information is usually increased by a huge amount. There are many different types of media being presented. And the possibilities for presentation go way beyond just fonts and colours, there is sound, graphics and video, furthermore the whole thing is interactive. To make a good job of the presentation and usability of a typical multi-media electronic document would require a huge team of user interface and graphic designers working around the clock. Currently companies involved in creating and publishing electronic documents don't do this. Consider the following hypothetical (yet frighteningly familiar) approaches:

Just hiring in a good user interface designer is not the whole solution. Electronic publishing is still a developing area. New user interface design problems are always appearing requiring the formulation of new design solutions. These problems are not going to be solved by research groups coming up with yet more unusable standards for structuring multi-media documents. Neither are they going to be solved by commercial companies churning out gaudy multi-media titles to meet impossible deadlines. The only approach is a synergy between the two; joint projects bringing together the real world know-how and experience of industry with the rigour and methodology of the research world.

Please contact:
Lon Barfield - General Design
Tel: +31 20 663 7769