When it comes to usability, it's what's up front that counts

John Breeden II

You've heard the old saw in the real estate business. Three things matter when selling a house: location, location, location. The stateliest Victorian manor, priced to move, won't go anywhere if it sits beside a landfill.

It's the same with software. Here, the top priorities are interface, interface, interface.

Many grade A and B products submitted to the GCN Lab for review in recent months have changed little from previous versions, except for more user-friendly interfaces. In most cases, that's more than enough to move a product from mediocrity to sophistication.

For example, Microsoft's Office XP suite. Functionally, it hasn't changed much from the previous versions of Office. It still lets you type letters, memos, e-mail, spreadsheets and perform all kinds of other functions. What has changed is that every time the program 'thinks' for the user, a bubble appears that lets you change the setting to either keep it or return to your original setting.

Better interfaces also enhance hardware, even highly complex devices that could stump veteran administrators. The Cisco Catalyst 3550 24-port switch we recently reviewed is a perfect example. Functionally, the 3550 works as you would expect a Cisco switch to work. But its user interface is a big advance over its predecessor's.

We were able to turn on security features, such as blocking dangerous packets from going through the switch, by clicking on a software wizard that walked us through the process. It's hard to believe you can achieve Level 3 functionality with a Layer 2 switch, especially when the interface for most tasks is a simple wizard.

The increasing importance of an easy-to-comprehend user interface hit us when we tested the new NEC 5800 fault-tolerant server. The server is fully redundant, with two of every critical component, yet the operating system 'sees' only one complete build. The result: Failed components don't bring the system down even for a millisecond.

Managing a system like this could be a nightmare. But it's not with the 5800.

Locally, the system is managed through a window on the desktop. Administrators can simply monitor the components and react if something goes awry. But even more impressive is the simplicity of the Web interface, which looks almost exactly like the local interface. From a remote system, you can see the server, right down to whatever message is displaying on the local LED panel.

That's the advantage of a good in-terface. And the sword of usability cuts both ways. Interesting or innovative products can be downgraded in the minds of users by having archaic or difficult interfaces. In a recent review, we penalized two otherwise excellent personal digital assistants for having either an illogical or difficult user interface.

The Casio Cassiopeia has a difficult-to-navigate Microsoft Windows CE 3.0 operating system and a poor, 240- by 320-pixel color screen. The Sony Clie has great features, but it was difficult to use them because simple tasks, such as downloading photos taken with the integrated camera, was nearly impossible.

Everything from high-end servers to user-level office suites are becoming commodities, like televisions or computer games. And so the rules have changed for ease of use. Companies that don't understand that will join the long list of the defunct.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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