Automating the process

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"Making do"

Very few tools out there have the ability to automate any part of the usability testing process.

"The give and take of watching users test [a] site, for example, is very difficult to do with automated tools," said Sharon Laskowski, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Technology and Standards and manager of its Visualization and Usability Group. "Conducting interviews of users and deriving data from those is also hard to do with tools."

But that hasn't stopped people from trying.

NIST is developing its own tools, which can be downloaded from its Web Metrics site (zing.ncsl.nist.gov/WebTools/index.html). WebCAT, which stands for Web Category Analysis Tool, lets usability engineers construct and conduct an analysis in which users are asked to organize "index cards" to describe how they would put Web-based information together. WebSAT, or Web Static Analyzer Tool, checks Web pages' HTML coding against typical usability guidelines.

Commercial software companies are also getting into the act. UsableNet Inc. (www.usablenet.com), for instance, has LIFT, which works with both Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver and Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage to check Web sites produced with those two products for compliance with Section 508 disability requirements. And Florida State University (www.ii.fsu.edu/Usability_Center) is looking to develop a toolset that will evaluate how user-friendly government Web sites are.

Nothing is available currently, but the hunt is on for suitable funding, said Charles McClure, an FSU professor and director of the university's Information Use Management and Policy Institute.

For information on other tools and usability resources, check out usableweb. com and the sites for the Usability Professionals' Association (www.upassoc.org), the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (www.w3.org/WAI) and usability guru Jakob Nielsen (www.useit.com).

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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