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Now that the web has matured a little, we have reached the point where businesses are no longer happy to merely have an online presence or for their sites just to generate traffic. Increasingly, there is a need to convert visitors into sales and an acknowledgement of the fact that in order to attain your (or your client’s) target of increased conversion rates, a site must first meet the end-users goals. The site must facilitate rather than frustrate the user and maximizing the usability of site is a vital element in a achieving this aim. Furthermore, in creating a web site or application for clients, the need to meet their requirements on time, first time are imperative. So how do you create a product that neatly meets the need of your client and end-user? Simple: build your design process around them.

User-centered design (UCD) is a key tool in the development of web sites that aim to meet all these goals. UCD is a process in which the needs and wants of the end-user are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. UCD does, however, present some challenges. Typically, the cost associated with implementing UCD has been high. More awkward still, in this increasingly flat and globalized world, your client or end-users are often remote and thus, unavailable for participation in the UCD process.

A potential solution to the cost and inaccessibility of clients and end-users is remote UCD. During this process, screen sharing software (such as GoToMeeting) is used in conjunction with a telephone call. This allows the developer to communicate with and view the end-user’s screen remotely. With these basic tools in use, it is possible to engage a large population of dispersed people within the process at a relatively low cost. At the same time, they will be operating within their natural environment, thus giving a truer reflection of the settings in which the product will be used.

Within the process of remote user-centered design, Paul Hibbitts highlights “remote contextual inquiries” and “remote usability testing” as the core activities. Through the use of screen sharing software and chatting to the end-user over the phone (recording the conversation if possible), the contextual inquiry is performed by observing and listening to the user within their natural context as they explain and demonstrate the type of tasks they need the prospective site or application to perform. This contextual inquiry helps uncover a detailed list of the user’s requirements, which are then used as the basis for the first mockup. Hibbitts suggests that, at this point, the mockup should be a rapid lo-fi rendition, and that this prototype (possibly just static pages) be used as the basis for the remote usability tests. For the usability tests, the developer sets up the same observational system as before and in the case of a static mockup, asks the user to “verbally interact” with it. The user describes what they are thinking and how they would interact with the mockup. The developer can then review the results of this observation (via a recording of the conversation, video or screen captures) and from there refine and iterate until the prototype closely matches the requirements of the client or typical end-user.

Remote UCD is not without some challenges. There can be a loss of rapport with a remote end-user or technical difficulties associated with bandwidth, firewalls and installation of screen sharing software. Potentially, the most problematic aspect of all, and this is true of UCD in general, is the increased time it will take to deliver the Beta of any product that is developed using this method. For medium to large projects, however, the increase in design time using this technique is more than offset by the reduction in time spent refining and massaging a hastily built product that doesn’t quite meet the client’s needs.

As with the development of all previous media, an initial preoccupation with the technological underpinnings of a medium will eventually subside as it matures. It is at this point that people will begin to fully exploit and harness the unique qualities of the medium. The web is no different. Interactivity as one of its defining characteristics will come to the fore, and with it will come an increased focus upon the user and usability. We at VKI recognize the preeminence of usability in the creation of a site or web application as well as the key role which the client or end-user plays within this process. Remote user-centered design offers rich potential for allowing us to create a product that facilitates, rather than frustrates the visitor. By enabling the end-user to achieve their goals, we ensure that our clients achieve theirs.