by Janne Jul Jensen, Mikael B. Skov and Jan Stage

The Web Portal Usability (WPU) project is working on usability engineering methods, which are important in the development of Web portals. These methods are tested with companies that design modern Web portals.

Usability evaluation and user interaction design are two key activities in the development of an interactive system. They are mutually dependent, but in practice there is often little or no fruitful interplay between them. Considerable efforts have been devoted to improving the interplay between usability evaluation and software development, with two approaches being typical. The first focuses on better methods, and the second on better feedback.

Compared to these approaches, Web site development is particularly challenging. Web sites involve vast amounts of information, services and purchasing possibilities, and the users are a tremendously heterogeneous group who employ Web sites for a multitude of purposes. Because of this, Web site developers must accommodate the massive variety in user preferences and capabilities.

Yet many contemporary Web sites suffer from problems with low usability. The challenges of developing user-friendly Web portals originate from two major sources. First, the projects that develop Web portals usually have a very short duration. Second, the users of most Web portals are exceedingly diverse.

Usability is “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (ISO, 1998). The purpose of conducting usability evaluations is to facilitate a feedback loop: the results of a usability evaluation are fed back into the software development activities that create and shape the product in order to enhance usability.

State-of-the-art usability engineering methods have had so far a very limited influence on Web portal development, because they provide very few solutions to the main challenges. Extensive research has documented the fact that users encounter serious problems when they use Web services, wasting large amounts of time and often giving up before they achieve what they set out to do.

The WPU project is based on the following hypotheses:

1. The usability of Web portals can be improved considerably by applying selected usability engineering methods that are tailored to this domain.

2. It is possible to develop usability engineering methods that are directly relevant to Web portal development, and to reduce the demands for resources and expertise to a level where these methods can be integrated with Web portal projects.

The aim of the WPU project is to confirm these hypotheses by developing and testing usability engineering methods. The project will produce the following results:

  • a set of new methods for usability engineering in Web portal development
  • a set of guidelines for selection and application of the methods
  • a training programme for Web portal developers
  • research training for two PhD students and a post-doctoral researcher.

The WPU Project will involve a combination of state-of-the-art survey, method creation, method training and experimental assessment. The state-of-the-art survey will collect experiences with usability issues in Web portal development that are documented in the literature. The method creation will build the catalogue of methods that will be a key result of the project. This will include the experiences and the list of fragments of usability engineering methods compiled in the state-of-the-art survey. Method training will involve the design of training programmes for the methods created in the project, and the use of these programmes in a participating company. The experimental assessment will collect experience with the new methods. The quality of the methods will be assessed through a series of experiments, conducted by a participating software company and in a laboratory setting.
The project is supported in part by the Danish Research Councils under grant number 2106-08-0011. It also receives support from Aalborg University and the two participating companies.

Please contact:
Janne Jul Jensen, Mikael B. Skov and Jan Stage
Aalborg University/DANAIM, Denmark
E-mail: {jjj,dubois,jans}

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