Thursday, May 8, 2014

Don't Fear The User Part 1 - Empowering Software Development With Usability Techniques

Usability is the practice of making things easy to use

Usability is the practice of making products, especially software, easy to use.  If you can think of some frustrating website that just didn't work, or even a bad customer service experience, you understand how important usability is.

The whole world needs usability. Here we are just talking about the intersection where humans and computers meet - software. Since software is exploding, the industry needs user centered design more than ever. As consumers we need our smart phones and apps to be easy to use. But professionals probably need more usability than consumers... just so they can do their jobs. And sadly, way too many B to B applications and enterprise software are unwieldy and difficult to use.

There is a way to fix software so it's easy to use. Incorporating usability techniques into your development process accomplishes two things. #1 it allows you to focus on the goal of making your product work as best it can. #2 it keeps software projects honest, prevents money being wasted on endless, directionless development.

What Usability is NOT

Usability is not about design in that it has nothing to do with attractiveness. Usability is not about content, but it involves how people find and interact with content and information.  Usability is not about marketing, it's not creative, but good usability leads people to like a particular app as opposed to hating it, and this grows user adoption.

Usability IS Business

It's funny that usability is entrusted to a design team on a project because it has more to do with business goals than design goals. Business people and executives should regard user research and testing as a means to gain more control over their business. At tech companies they will have researchers perform usability testing. But since designers dictate what the User Interface (UI) will be, designers are helpful in translating usability findings into the UI. Still usability needs business's buy-in in order for it to be effective.

Here are some scenarios where a little usability work could have a big impact on business:

  • An application used by your company is confusing, and people need to ask others for help in order to use it.
  • You have a massive amount of data, it's so huge you can't make heads or tails of all that information. You need to figure out how to display this data in a way that works for your clients.
  • You are customizing off-the-shelf software that comes with all these great "capabilities" and you need help deciding which functions would be best for your business.
  • Your company spends way too much money on customer service calls and your business could save a lot by just making your product easier to use.
  • It takes too long for people to do their job with the software you are currently using. You can increase revenues if people can do their jobs faster.

At it's core usability is about listening - to customers, to clients, to the "end-user" and translating that research into a functional UI. It sounds simple, and it is, IF you know how to do it. In part 2 I'll discuss techniques for DIY usability testing and user research. But if you have a large-scale application that needs help then contact me for more in depth consultation. After more than 10 years of analyzing usability in software, a short consultation may be all you need to fix your usability problems.