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Last Updated: Monday, 31 October 2005, 10:28 GMT
Usability awards are just a start
Handing out prizes for usability should not make us think that the battle is won, argues technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Graham
Graham won an award for his site about prostate cancer
In Geoffrey Chaucer's England, people liked to go on pilgrimages in April when the spring buds were bursting through thanks to the "showres soote".

But the people who organise awards ceremonies seem to prefer the autumn, at least if my recent experience is anything to go by.

Perhaps it is because it seems like a good idea to be indoors watching plaques get handed out on cold evenings when the rain is anything but sweet.

Earlier this month we were treated to the BT Digital Music Awards, and of course we have just had both the Nobel Prize announcements and the keenly contested Ig Nobel awards for apparently pointless scientific research.

One of this year's papers was for an experiment in how fast tar drips that has been going since 1927.

This year I am directly involved in two award ceremonies. I was asked to speak at last week's Silver Surfer of the Year event.

I will actually be handing out the statuettes this week when the UK chapter of the Usability Professionals' Association gives out awards as part of World Usability Day.

Raising awareness

The Silver Surfers awards have been going since 2001 and recognise the growing use of the internet by older people.

You start being a "silver" surfer at 50, so I am rapidly getting there myself, and since my beard is already mostly white, I suspect that a few members of the audience thought that I was already among their number.

Bill Thompson
Pointing out that your ability to engage with technology and do cool stuff does not disappear once you are out of your 40s has got to be a good thing. It certainly reassures me
The ceremony was held at Portcullis House, just next to the House of Commons, and around 100 people came along to see Graham, Stuart and the other winners receive their awards from Derek Wyatt MP.

Graham is using a website to tell people about prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2004. He started an online diary about his experiences and treatment, largely so that friends and family could know what was happening, and it has become the basis of a larger site offering information and support to others.

It is an excellent website, but it is clear that Graham has had to struggle with the technology to create and maintain it. I could not help wonder what he could have achieved if the tools available had been better and simpler.

While the Silver Surfer awards are there to acknowledge and applaud what the winners have done, the real point is to raise awareness and encourage others to get online.

Although the number of people over 50 using the web is increasing along with the general population - and government statistics show that the proportion ages 55-64 is actually growing faster than any other - many of these people need help and encouragement once they do get online.

Pointing out that your ability to engage with technology and do cool stuff does not disappear once you are out of your 40s has got to be a good thing. It certainly reassures me.

It is the same with the usability awards. Handing out prizes for the most usable e-commerce website or the best consumer electronic device is not just about rewarding good design and consideration for users.

Drip, drip effect

The awards provide an excuse to talk about the ways that most sites, computers and consumer goods let their users down, and perhaps make the designers and developers feel just a little bit guilty about the shoddiness of much of their work.

At least, that is the idea.

It would be nice to think that designers from Apple, Microsoft and Google were anxiously awaiting Thursday's announcement, but I rather doubt it. Raising awareness takes time, and it is only the constant drip, drip of adverse comment and public criticism that will have an impact.

But in the discussion at the Silver Surfers awards we did come up with one way that pressure could be put on product designers and software developers. The over 50s may not be a major market segment for shiny new consumer technologies, but they do have a direct line through to the heart of the computing industry, through their children or grandchildren.

If everyone with a son or daughter (or grandson or granddaughter) working for a web designer put a note in their birthday card to say "and why don't you think about old people like me when you're designing your software", then it might just make them think again when they build a site with tiny fonts, miniscule icons and no accessibility aids.

And then we could see what people like Graham can come up with when the tools available to them support and sustain their creativity instead of getting in the way.

Click here to send your responses to Bill's column.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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