I'll have a usability test please

By Leslie Fountain @LjkFountain

The UX world was very different when Foolproof was born in 2002. The digital design world was just waking up to the importance of including the end user in the design process.

Expectations of the internet were rising, technology was advancing and end users were becoming more discerning.

The online world was increasingly a channel to market, a way for people to communicate and stay informed, and a way for public services to be delivered. However, the skills to navigate through this, to research and design great user experiences were few and far between – and many mistakes were made.

We’ve been reminiscing and picked six of our favourite UX themes which were the talk of 2002.

I’ll have a Usability test please…

UX2002 Quote 1

The general belief that usability was something you did just before launch, to fine tune the user interface and language, was the norm. Those of us in the industry were desperately trying to compile ROI figures to persuade clients that this was the wrong approach – but genuine and compelling examples were rare, even though the principle was common sense:

  • Make mistakes early, they are far cheaper to fix when they are on paper than in code
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate – it’s all about design process

One example ROI quote, from the one and only Jakob Nielsen when interviewed for Digital Web in 2002, is “Usability increases the benefits of the design by 100% at a cost of 10% of the investment in developing it. Thus, the benefits are ten times the cost, leading to an average ROI estimate of 1000%”.

It took a long time, but we got there and we’re pleased to say that now, most clients realise the benefit of early user involvement, as early as concept development.

Our customers can self-serve online – that’ll cut costs…

UX2002 Quote 2

In 2002, digital and the internet were seen as a tool for business to be more efficient, by saving money through reduced sales, support, training, and documentation costs. Without good design and attention to usability this tended to lead to online and digital services which were poor replicates of existing services & and frustrated end users.

A Forrester report in 2001 illustrated this issue in a review of 150 websites in which they found that “even though consumers, business customers, and site executives underscore the need for usability … most sites fail to support user goals”.

It has taken most of the last decade to learn that it is a tool for customers – to improve their experience as they move across and between different channels, whether online or offline.

The future of public services is online…

UX2002 Quote 3

The process of getting all public information and government services online by 2005 was punctuated by an interim deadline of 25% by 2002. Metadata standards were issued, accessibility guidelines produced and budgets allocated. People entirely ill-equipped to run digital projects were asked to deliver complex online services involving multiple external agencies and consultancies.

It should have been great – it was an experience design playground. The reality was a little different. The constraints, timeframes and lack of experience often resulted in technology-led design and poor compromises for the citizens. Common sense didn’t always prevail.

A particular focus at the time was around the design of forms and the different challenges and opportunities a move to online presented. Caroline Jarrett was, and remains today, an expert on form design. Her advice then is still relevant today: “If you are changing an existing process, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that because it is working now, that it is working well. Take time to find out all the details of what is really happening. Think about whether the intended change will make a minor problem in the current system into a major issue in the new system.

The rise of aggregators

Start-up online ventures were emerging around brand new commercial concepts, rather than simply new channels to market for traditional ones. A key area was around aggregators of data, both public and commercial. The primary challenges of the commercial ventures were sourcing sufficient data, building trust, clarity of presentation, supporting the user’s workflow and a clear call-to-action to drive monetisation. In 2002 the public were sceptical, and the experience was unfamiliar – all good design challenges faced by Lastminute, moneysupermarket and buy.co.uk.

In 2012 these challenges are still there, but the format is far more accepted and proving successful.

UX2002 Quote 4A

Data was becoming more ‘open’, people were very curious to access it and internet technologies were starting to enable aggregators of this newly open data.

UX2002 Quote 4

These sites were little more than a curiosity to end users in 2002. No one had yet worked out how to monetise them. Advertising was the easy, but often misguided, answer. Upmystreet.com was a compelling site and a favourite of ours, but struggled to monetize as illustrated in an NMA site review in September 2002, “UpMyStreet Content 19/25 Usability 18/25 Branding 17/25 Monetisation n/a Total 54/75”. In 2003 it went into administration.

The beginning of embedded applications

UX2002 Quote 51

The burgeoning internet design world was all abuzz because new technologies were lifting the limitations of HTML and promising a far more dynamic and interactive online world. Cascading Style sheets were promising more design control, performance and better accessibility, but as Mark Newhouse said “there’s a great chasm between promise and reality. Flash was moving from a way to include simple animations to adding new interactive elements, and Java applications could be embedded.

As our old friend Jakob Nielsen and his colleagues pointed out, this world of opportunity wasn’t without issues.

“..in the usability field we know that more technical capabilities and a broader set of design options usually translate into more rope for hanging the users. New features are almost always used to excess, and it takes some time to discover the most appropriate way of applying new technology to suit human needs.” Usability of Rich Internet Applications and Web-Based Tools, Hoa Loranger, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen, November 2002.

Plug-ins were needed for most of these added extras, and users didn’t always see the benefit, or know how to install them. The limited but accepted range of user interface elements in HTML was suddenly gate-crashed by anything and everything designers and coders chose to throw at it. Users were confused.

Suddenly, more than ever, the digital world needed a new breed of interaction designers who could maximise the opportunities without compromising the experience. There weren’t many around. They became very busy.

The emergence of mobile internet

UX2002 Quote 61

Most people were carrying mobile phones but, unlike today, virtually all use was calls and texts. Even though a few phones were starting to include 3G, colour screens and cameras, the design of services was limited by the low resolution screens and speed and reliability of connectivity.

”Mobile devices suffer from small screens, poor input methods, low bandwidth, and limited battery life. Services must be carefully designed to fulfil users’ needs, without unnecessary complexity” CHI 2002, Tutorial led by Vincent Helyar and David More, The Hiser Group

Futurologists were predicting a mobile future, and forward looking companies were keen to begin building mobile services using SMS and the new WAP technology, available in ‘high-end’ phones. The excitement was great – the reality for users was disappointing. It was painfully slow and awkward to use with endless menus and irritating scrolling lists. It was another few years before mobile internet became a mainstream reality.

We’re right on the cutting edge of this still evolving world of design – watch this space for the next 10 years.


10 years has seen a lot of change and we’re sure the next 10 will see far more as peoples’ access to technology becomes more ubiquitous, their confidence grows, new business models emerge around digital, and the kinds of services available become richer and more complex.

We’re looking forward to taking a key role in addressing these challenges, just as we have in the last 10 years. Our philosophy of placing the user at the heart of all strategic and design decisions will ensure success for our clients as the world around them changes. We’re really excited to be guiding them towards 2022.

We’re happy to keep reminiscing, so what do you remember of user experience, design or usability in 2002? Share your thoughts below.

Want to be part of the next 10 years? Contact us today.

Leslie Fountain

As the Managing Director of Foolproof I have the luxury of combining my passion for human-centred design with helping some of the world’s biggest brands to solve complex design challenges, as well as leading and nurturing an international team containing some of the best talent in the industry.

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