UP THE CHANNEL: The need for webonomics

UP THE CHANNEL: The need for webonomics

Ergonomics is the study of making everyday things have a better human interface - designing to ensure that people's capabilities and limitations are taken into account and the product is fit for use.

Good IT examples include ergo mice that are a dream to hold and use (unless you are a left hander like me) or the curved keyboard (that never really took off).

But ergonomics seems to have become a forgotten science as far as the interface between the human and the Internet is concerned.

Most IT websites are terrible, requiring too many clicks and plenty of deter­mination just to find things. Some make it impossible to compare products.

Enter webonomics (a word I wished I had invented) - the science of making websites more user friendly.

You can read a little more about this at or just search

Let me step back in time. I interviewed Steve Jobs at Apple, in the mid-'80s. He was talking about his dream of a device that could be the ultimate interface between humans and digital information - he coined the name Newton, a product released in 1993 and sold until 1998.

Jobs was not concerned about the hardware (as long as it was Apple). He was concerned that his PDA had the ability to find, massage and present information in a way that suited him.

His example was "Gimme the turkeys" which was his slang for how many Apples he had sold that week. The Newton (running on a Lisa at the time) understood his colloquial request, went off and came back with a yard full of different coloured turkeys accompanied by a graph to show turkey sales over the past quarter. Steve was happy, spoke of things called meta tags, hyper links and AI. I was confused.

Recently I decided to try this approach using Google, although it would not recognise turkeys. I wanted an 80GB, 8MB cache, 7200rpm, ATA133 hard-disk with three-year warranty.

Limiting the search to Australia I got 80 hits - a good start. On going to each and every website I was accosted by a list of between 20 and 170 items, most irrelevant to my search.

Some sites also include computer systems using that variety of turkey. Not one site had a search facility to just give me the turkey I wanted.

I spoke to John Rutterford, a pioneering Web developer for a retailer that imports disparate price lists from a number of disties and then tries to massage them into a product database of about 50,000 items, ultimately to publish these to the Web to help consumers make shopping decisions.

His greatest issue was that distributors did not help by each having a proprietary list format (which could change weekly), using inconsistent product groups, some not listing manufacturer's part numbers, changing descriptions and part numbers regularly and so on.

In short the only way he could get my turkeys was to do a complex Boolean text search to build a table that would (a) take some considerable time and (b) still only produce a list of items, not nicely classified as I wanted.

After some time we realised the only way would be for him to manually tag the key attributes of some 50,000 items. He saw the benefit and is working out a way to massage this data accordingly.

As consumers embrace buying, or at least researching over the Web the stores that stop using "catalogue and list" approaches and start using focused search systems will reap the benefits. Imagine being able to search for "give me a PC that will run Autocad, do digital video editing and make DVD movies".

Disties and resellers might like to think about this - imagine the sales that could be generated by being more focused on how the customer needs data, not how your accounting system spits it out.

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