Tag Archives: media richness

Alexa corporate ownership democracy free market internet marketplace of ideas mass media media independence media ownership metrics online publishing performance metrics reliability Usability usability testing user satisfaction validity

Notes: Web site usability, design, and performance metrics

Palmer, J.W. (2002). Web site usability, design, and performance metrics. Information Systems Research, 13(2), 151-167.

In this study Palmer looks at three different ways to measure web site design, usability and performance. Rather than testing specific sites or trying out specific design elements, this paper looks at the validity of the measurements themselves. Any metrics must exhibit at least construct validity and reliability—meaning that the metrics must measure what they say they measure, and they must continue to do so in other studies. Constructs measured included download delay, navigability, site content, interactivity, and responsiveness (to user questions). The key measures of the user’s success with the web site included frequency of use, user satisfaction, and intent to return. Three different methods were used: a jury; third-party rankings (via Alexa), and a software agent (WebL). The paper examine the results of three studies, one in 1997, on in 1999, and one in 2000, involving corporate web sites. The measures were found to be reliable, meaning jurors could answer a question the same way each time, and valid, in that different jurors and methods agreed on the answers to questions. In addition, the measures were found to be significant predictors of success.

This is an interesting article because in my experience, usability studies are often all over the place, with everything from cognitive psychology and physical ergonomics to studies of server logs to formal usability testing to “top ten usability tips” lists. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that it is a young field, and some of it is due to the different motive fueling research (commercial versus academic). One thing in the article I worry about, however, is any measure of “interactivity” as a whole. Interactivity is not a simple concept to control, and adding more interactivity is not always a good idea. Imagine a user trying to find the menu on a restaurant’s web site—do they want to be personally guided through it via an interactive Flash cartoon of the chef, or do they want to just see the menu? Palmer links interactivity to the theory of media richness, which has a whole body of research behind it that I am no expert on. But I would word my jury questionnaires to reflect a rating of appropriate interactivity.

The most important impact of this study is that it helps put usability studies on a more academically sound footing. It is very important to have evidence that you are measuring what you think you are measuring. It would be interesting to see if other studies have adopted these particular metrics because of the strong statistical evidence in this study.

The most straight-forward metric, download delay, is also one that has been discounted lately. The thought is that with so many users switching to broadband access, download speed is no longer the issue it used to be. This is especially false for sites with information seeking interfaces, which are often very dynamic and rely on database access. No amount of bandwidth will help if your site’s database server is overloaded.

Media independence, corporate control, and democracy

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 6

In “Rethinking Media and Democracy” James Curran discards the accepted view of the media’s role in democracy and shows that corporate control may be worse for the people than government control.  Historically, the media is seen as a check on government that must be independent-meaning it must reside in the free market.  Curran says this arrangement has failed the people in several ways.

Curran gives three standard arguments for media independent of government: first, to act as a watchdog; second, as a way to facilitate idea exchange and debate; and third, so that they may act as the voice of the people more.  He says all three arguments are flawed by real-world conditions and corporate ownership.  First off, the media rarely even schedule watchdog-type news anymore-most mass media effort today is entertainment.  And the government is no longer the only large, faceless entity that the people need a watchdog for.  Giant corporations, the same ones that own the bulk of the mass media, today have more power than some governments, yet the classical argument doesn’t mention them.  Furthermore, there are many examples of the mass media working with or for the government even if they are independently owned, simply because it is in their best economic interest.  Curran does allow that loss of credibility and professional ethics counter these arguments to some degree, but not enough to overpower his concern.

Curran rejects the marketplace of ideas theory largely because the free market has led to multi-billion dollar media mergers, large percentages of market share for a small number of companies, and a high cost to enter the marketplace in any meaningful manner.  Second, the mass market demands more entertaining, less informative content; third, the market lead to information-rich media for elite and info-poor media for the mass market; and fourth, it leads to simplified news rather than process-type news.

The mass media also do not really act as a voice of the people.  Curran thinks the free market is fundamentally flawed in this regard-public participation in the media is passive, in terms of buying what they like, rather than an active voice in most cases.  Even new communication technologies, he says, which may seem to give people more of a voice, have been reigned in by deregulation-inspired mergers.

I agree with many of the problems with the standard idea of the purpose of the media in a democratic society he has brought up.  I think it’s especially important that the people have a watchdog for large corporations now when so many of them are beyond any real government or market control.  Except for a few cases (like Disney losing business if people find out they use sweatshop labor) corporations are free to do anything they wish that may effect individuals adversely with little accountability.  The government, on the other hand, has to seek approval from the public every few years through election.  It is relatively easy to find out what’s going on in the government when compared to the private sector, yet corporations control what you eat, breathe, and read every day.

He is also right that the mass media, as a whole, is moving towards more entertainment and less information, especially on public policy.  That’s because people buy it.  Why do you think political candidates with obviously no command of the issues can beat out those who are well-informed?  People don’t like to hear about fiscal policy, but they do like hearing about “uniters, not dividers” and “family values.”  Curran mentions the growth of purely-informational media and specialized media as a wedge between the elites and the general public but I think he’s missing the point.  In the U.S., at least, nothing is stopping 99 percent of the general public from accessing the elite, actually informative media except preference.  Almost everyone can afford a New York Times once and a while and everyone can afford The Other Paper and Columbus Alive (which are more investigative than the Dispatch) or go to a public library and surf the web for free.  No matter what structure the media takes, the bottom line is you can’t force people to pay attention to important things they aren’t interested in.  If 99 channels are public interest, civic organizations, truth-seeking investigation, etc. and one channel has Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Entertainment Tonight, will people be any better informed than they are today?  That is the main flaw in Curran’s whole essay-even taking the market out of the picture and all the ways in which it limits public information and debate, he still gives people the right to choose what they view and read and therefore leaves it up to them, essentially no better than the free market.  All of the flaws of the free market he cited would be erased immediately if the public demanded it.  But they don’t.

The development of the Internet is a good illustration.  On the surface it seems to prove Curran’s point-when it began, many people saw it as this perfect marketplace of ideas, yet now much of it is controlled by a few companies (who are buying up competitors as they are created).  Curran’s criticisms seem to hold.  However, the market is not to blame here-the cost of publishing on the net is insignificant and no site has to aim at the whole market and therefor dumb-down it’s content.  But, as more of the general public has gone online, the explosive growth has been channeled toward Microsoft Network, AOL, Yahoo, and a few others, because most people are more comfortable being spoonfed more of the same kinds of things they’ve already been exposed to.  It does not take much time or know-how to find much better, deeper, faster, etc. info on the net, but the majority of users now would rather just click on the first thing they see, which is determined by a merger between AOL and Bugs Bunny, even if John Doe’s independent cartoon studio is twice as funny and only five clicks away.