News: House of Commons Presentation

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As one of a series of special events at Parliament for UK Science, Engineering and Technology initiated by 'SET for BRITAIN', a reception was held at the House of Commons on 22 October 2003 for poster displays and modest exhibitions by start-ups, spin-offs and spin-outs from the commercialisation of university research. Since Surfability is a spin-out from Queen Mary, University of London, our Managing Director, Mark Williams, presented a poster at the event and the following text was included in a book that was compiled especially for the event, where each of the companies in attendance were given two pages each to tell their stories.

SET for BRITAIN: "Science and Surfability"

Background

In October 2000, Dr. Mark Williams was awarded an inaugural Enterprise Fellowship award from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research council (PPARC). This award provided Dr. Williams with one year's worth of business training - in the form of a Masters Degree in New Venture Creation - and a full-time, salaried position which enabled him to build upon the success of the BaBar Web Improvement Project (see below). During the period covered by his Enterprise Fellowship, Mark was provided with office space at the Physics Department of Queen Mary and Westfield College (QMW), his former employers. Surfability Limited was incorporated in February 2001, began trading in April 2001, and span out of QMW in December the same year.

Underlying research

In July 1998 Dr. Williams was hired by Stanford University in California to research and redesign the international BaBar Physics collaboration's website/intranet, which in just four years had accumulated over 100,000 linked documents and had become chaotic and unusable. Adhering strictly to the established guidelines of Jakob Nielsen and other web usability 'gurus' he came up with an intuitive and consistent look-and-feel for the site, and he designed an information architecture based on the results of user 'card-sorting' exercises and usage analyses. However, at that time there were no commercially available software packages that could be used to implement this new web design and architecture.

Dr. Williams recruited Dr. Paul Dixon, a colleague from QMW, to assist him in developing a suite of software tools to move all the documents on the BaBar website into the redesigned information architecture, automatically changing all the website's hyperlinks to match the new design. After a period of user-testing and prototyping, the website was successfully re-launched in February 1999. To make the transition as painless as possible for the website's 600 dependent users - many of whom were regular content contributors - they were provided with a simple tool to automatically update their Netscape Bookmarks and Internet Explorer Favourites files.

It was the success of the BaBar Web Improvement Project that led Dr. Williams to apply for and win a PPARC Enterprise Fellowship. The initial business idea was to commercialise the original software developed at QMW and form a company offering "web tools and consultancy services".

Further Research and Development

The Enterprise Fellowship programme and the bursting dot-com 'bubble' led Dr. Williams to realise that he had to come up with a new business idea, one that was more radical and innovative. It was all very well saying that the Surfability team could improve websites and make them more usable and navigable, but how could they prove it?

In early 2002, after leaving QMW and moving into new offices, Surfability won a SMART award from the Government Office for London, and by the end of the year they successfully demonstrated the feasibility of the Surfability ScaleTM. This innovative product automatically identifies usability and navigational deficiencies in a website, and accurately gauges its effectiveness as an information resource. It enables webmasters to find and correct the main design features (such as poor link design) preventing users from finding important information.

How the work is being commercialised

Since proving the feasibility of its Surfability ScaleTM, the company has developed the NaviGaugeTM graphical user interface to the software and is currently using it to perform an ease-of-use analysis of a large website for a London-based firm of solicitors. A new software tool, called the KhronoMetaTM, which builds upon the core product, has also been developed to analyse the usage of the 12,000 page website of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to determine both when and which different sub-sections of the site are being used by members of the public. The DTI website analysis project is due to begin within the next few weeks.

Overall potential

The Surfability ScaleTM has the potential to become an industry standard by which the ease-of-use of information-rich websites may be measured. It compares very favourably with alternative, manual methods for testing websites since it is objective, automated and also cost-effective, because it does not put a strain on human resources.

Business strategy

The target markets for Surfability Limited are in the financial, legal, telecommunications and public sectors. Once the value of the Surfability ScaleTM has been proven to key players within these industries then joint ventures with larger IT solutions providers will be formed in order to take advantage of their established distribution channels.

How it contributes to UK plc

The importance of the Internet to UK plc has long been recognised by government. By ensuring that the effectiveness of UK websites and intranet sites is continuously monitored, electronic knowledge transfer both internal and external to large organisations can be managed optimally and reliably. Moreover, since the UK government is aiming to get all its public services online by 2005, the ability to measure, for example, the relative performance of the various different city councils' websites, using the same 'yardstick', would enable underperforming websites to be identified and then improved.

Names of appropriate people

Released on October 6th 2003

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