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Editor’s Note: The Greening of World Usability

This issue of User Experience introduces 2008 with a rich set of articles from a wide range of real-world perspectives. Rick Starbuck, Washington Mutual Bank, USA, shows us how user-centered design achieves bottom-line business success. Jerrod Larson, University of Washington, USA, analyzes why some companies make poor decisions about software usability. Anu Kankainen, Idean, Finland, discusses techniques for evaluating and validating wearable technology products. All in all, a great collection of views into today’s world of user-experience design and analysis.

You might think we could be satisfied with what the usability and user-experience profession is accomplishing in many areas of life. What makes this year special, but what presents a formidable challenge, is the growing interest in sustainability. As many publications remark, “green is the new black”, i.e., the fashionable color of design and commerce.. Almost everyone is talking about the environment and its effects on our economic, social, and physical lives. From publications, events, and documents, from politicians, media stars, and news announcers, from almost every specialized professional organization and popular publication, we find people with statements to make, causes to push, and paths to solving the problem.

One result of all this commotion is that UPA and its own professionals could expand the role of usability and user experience. Usability with a capital U means thinking about the total costs of production, distribution, and disposal; the large-scale impact on the environment; and the long-term effects of usage that reach far beyond the more narrow focus of most usability research, analysis, design, and evaluation.

These concerns may lead to new philosophies of usability, new theories, new techniques for testing, new questions to ask, new data to gather, and new ways of communicating the results of our studies and analyses.

We have much to learn about the larger sense of being usable. Separating fractured facts from fiction and distinguishing hyperbole and hypocrisy from more supportable and ethical systems will be challenging. The complex path to improvement won’t be straight or easy, but we can make progress. Some areas of advancement are already evident, even as the din from threats of imminent doom become more stentorian. Sparks of light occasionally illuminate the darkness.

To cite one example: A recent symposium in California on innovative, sustainable high-technology organized by the Netherlands-America Foundation brought together Silicon Valley and Dutch venture capitalists, senior scientists, designers, and engineers. One of the panelists, Dr. Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, talked about the importance of information displays or “citizen dashboards” that display complete visualizations of the life-cycle costs and impacts of daily decisions, like filling a car’s gas tank or turning on an electrical appliance. He cited research studies showing that simply presenting better information in an effective way could lead to behavior changes without requiring government regulation or incentives. The idea that usable information design and information visualization done right could lead to demonstrable gains in healthful habits and to a lower impact on the environment was certainly appealing. It remains to be seen if these initiatives themselves can be sustained.

The net take-away from these many worldwide developments is this: usability and user-experience professionals have a large new area in which to use their skills and passion to make the world, not just a particular toy or tool, more user-friendly. We have much to learn, much to do. Let’s get started.