Study finds Web quality time

By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

Ever swear at a computer because the two of you were not communicating very well?

The communications interface between computer and human has always been a sore spot, at least for humans. The increasing use of the Web, which has shifted human-computer communications out of the work realm and into our leisure time as well, makes it even more apparent that interfaces count.

Researchers from the U.S. Air Force have published a study that takes some initial steps in quantifying exactly what Web applications need to do to provide users with a better experience. The research could help developers keep to a minimum those experiences that lead to swearing at silicon.

The difficulty of judging the quality of a Web experience is that the possibilities are so broad, according to Jason Turner, a computer network countermeasures engineer at the Air Force Information Warfare Center at the Kelly Air Force Base.

"Unlike a traditional information technology system or network that might be designed or acquired for a specific function [like] banking, office automation [or] academic study, the Internet is simply a collection of connections with little task specificity," he said. "Everyone's experience with the Internet is undoubtedly influenced by many factors: browser, means of access, reason for use, just to name a few."

The researchers drew on established theories of human-computer interaction and information technology to conduct their study. The human-computer interaction theory they used defines ease-of-use as a function of three factors, said Turner. They are "utility -- whether the system does what is needed functionally; usability -- whether the users can actually work with the system successfully; and likability -- whether the users feel the system is suitable," he said. These three factors are all balanced against cost, which includes capital and operating expenses as well as social consequences, he said.

The researchers also took into account regret theory from behavioral science, which places importance on factors that prevent us from achieving our goals, especially after discomfort arises from a failure to do so.

The researchers surveyed Internet users in order to find what factors mattered to them the most in terms of having a good experience on the Internet. In the study, 148 users of varying ages and Internet experience levels identified key circumstances or issues that they associated with the best and worst experiences they had with the Internet.

The researchers found that users' perceptions of and feelings towards Internet use were predominantly determined by a relatively small, seemingly stable and apparently consistent set of conditions, said Turner. These ten critical quality-of-experience items "may typify the events or factors which influence the relative success with which the sample of Internet users were able to accomplish their goals," he said.

The critical factors were the relevance of information to a task, the availability of search engine options like multiple criteria, the amount of information available, the organization of information, the ease-of-use of the browser, the reliability of the connection, the clarity of directions for Web site navigation, whether links were up-to-date, the availability of information at remote servers, and perceptions of security and/or privacy.

How efficient we believe our Internet experiences will be "center[s] around our assessment of how successful we think we will be at using the Internet to accomplish our goals," said Turner.

The researchers also found that several factors which are often thought to enhance Web experiences fade from view if the interface as a whole doesn't provide a quality experience, said Turner. "Heavy graphics, sound, animation, et cetera might not be so important to the user if the interface doesn't first and foremost help the user achieve his or her goals by providing for those factors which relate to a high-quality usage experience," said Turner.

The researchers' study also suggested that the critical factors do not vary as users gain experience on the systems, said Turner. This means that investment in making systems more usable would apply to both novice and expert users.

Interface developers could probably save time and money by focusing efforts on features that enhance the quality of the interface experience and on those aspects of the interface that helped users attain their goals, said Turner. "It might help to ensure we design ... from the start those ... functions which will ensure [that] the network or application itself is not abandoned or underutilized, regardless of what task or role that network or application will eventually play," he said.

Studies that quantify in some way the quality of users' experiences are badly needed, said Albert Badre, a computer science professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

One of the major problems is those studies often focus on usability to the exclusion of user satisfaction, he said. They measure things like the time it takes to perform a task, and make an assumption that "usability in terms of performance -- time performance, number of letters and so on -- correlates positively with users' pleasantness of experience," said Badre. "That is, in my opinion, a wrong assumption," he said.

In order to test that assumption, "we really need to be able to answer questions like did [users] perform tests the way they expected, were they successful at achieving their goals, and how do they feel as they were performing -- do they have a nice life, so to speak," he said.

For instance, "if you provide me with an aesthetically appealing Web site that is exactly the same thing as one that's very dry I will probably enjoy looking at the nice colors and nice pictures even though it might make it a little less efficient because the time to... download graphics is longer," he said.

Usability studies seldom directly measure the user's comfort, preferences, and pleasantness of experience in using any kind of technology, said Badre. This is because before the Web, "the main preoccupation of usability people was business software. And there you do want efficiency because that's what you focus on, productivity," he said.

But productivity is not the main goal when you're sitting at home trying to enjoy yourself surfing the Web, Badre said. "We did a study of that specific issue and [found] that when people have a different purpose they have a different idea of what they'd like to experience. I'm not saying that we don't enjoy good efficient interaction, but it could be there's more to it than simply that. And this is the kind of thing we need to investigate."

The Air Force researchers are "trying to get at quantifying that quality of experience. The objective... is a good one," Badre said.

The research is mainly meant to be a springboard for follow-on research, said Turner. The findings could be used to develop a practical application in two or three years, he said.

Turner's research colleague was Michael Morris, formerly of the Air Force Institute of Technology and now that the University of Virginia. They published the research in the June 1, 2001 issue of the International Journal of Human Computer Studies. The research was funded by the researchers.

Timeline:   2-3 years
Funding:   Private
TRN Categories:  Human-Computer Interaction
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Assessing Users' Subjective Quality of Experience with the World Wide Web: an Exploratory Examination of Temporal Changes in Technology Acceptance," International Journal of Human Computer Studies, June 1, 2001.


September 26, 2001

Page One

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Quantum bit withstands noise

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Study finds Web quality time

Powerless memory gains time


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