Run a usability test

I put this one first for those people who don’t scroll — because it’s the single most powerful weapon in the user experience arsenal. Nothing beats watching a user struggle with your interface: it’s truly one of those scales-falling-from-the-eyes moments. The simple version: find your participant, give them a task with your system/product/web site, then shut up and watch. Overachievers might want to read the slightly more complicated version.

Improve your navigation

Ask one of your non-designer friends what most irritates them about web sites and “not being able to find stuff” will be one of the first things they say. Yet testing out your web site’s navigation is one of the easiest things you can do. Prepare a stack of around 10-20 cards, where each card contains a short description of a likely goal that your system supports. For example, “Download a statement” might be common task for money management software. On the reverse of your card, list the main headings from your existing navigation structure. Give users the task cards and ask them to tick the heading they would use to get going with that task. This is called a tree test and it’s just one of many simple ways to find out how your users think.

Review your user guidance

What comes to mind when I say “user guidance”? For most people it’s manuals and certainly there’s a lot you can do with documentation to create a great first impression. But user guidance is more than a manual. Web sites may not have a manual but most of them still have user guidance in the form of microcopy on forms (such as labels and hint text). An easy way to review instructional text is to read the instruction to someone and see how they interpret it. Even better, get them to do the task at the same time and see where they slip up. You’ve just spotted a way to improve the user experience.

Define the UX vision

What’s the ‘winning idea’ behind your company’s product? If I asked you to express that by describing the experience you expect your user to have — ignoring the technology required to get there — what would you say? What you’ve just articulated is the core of your product’s user experience vision, a device that you can use to focus the efforts of the design team on what really matters. After all, technology comes and goes but experiences tend to stay with us.

Launch a survey

If you’re feeling anti-social and want to get some user feedback without actually meeting any users, try a survey. Online surveys are quick to set up, cheap to run and mostly analyse themselves. Keep the survey short and specific and your customers will provide many suggestions on how you can improve their experience. The risk with a survey is that you can get any answer you want depending on how you phrase the question, so make sure you write questions that are free of bias.

Identify your top 5 red routes

With all of this emphasis on ‘experience’, don’t lose sight of the fact that most people use technology to get stuff done. Frankly, most people don’t want an ‘experience’ with a car park machine, they just want to buy a parking ticket and move on. If you’re in any doubt, look over your browsing history and ask yourself why you visited the last few sites in your list. Now turn the tables and ask the same question about your own system. Identify the top 5 tasks that people want to carry out with your system — then act like a management consultant and ask how well your system helps people achieve those tasks.

Describe your primary user

Quick, describe the main user of the system you’re working on right now. Who said something like, “Urban male, mid-30s, owns an iPhone”? Demographic descriptions like these are useful in marketing but have very little value when designing or evaluating products. Instead, you should be able to describe your users’ goals, needs and behaviours since these provide specific ideas to design around. And if you’re feeling smug because you have a set of personas in your drawer, don’t be premature. How do you know your personas aren’t fake? Taking the time to clearly articulate your main user’s goals and motivations is one of the best ways we have to ensure your system is focused and usable.

Run a cognitive walkthrough

A cognitive walkthrough is a form of expert evaluation where you step through the actions a user must take to complete a task with your system. As well as helping you identify usability bloopers with your system, just preparing for a walkthough provides you with many benefits. For example, you’ll have to identify the user’s key tasks and then deconstruct each task into the micro-steps you expect the user to take. The preparation step alone often helps identify problems with the interface.

Measure yourself against best practice

Most people find it hard to identify “best practice” in user experience. Should we look to acknowledged experts like Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman or Ben Shneiderman? Or should we turn to successful companies like Apple, Google or Amazon? The truth is that there are many conflicting viewpoints about good practice. Standards, especially International Standards, can provide independent and authoritative guidance. Standards are developed slowly, by consensus, using extensive consultation and development processes. The discipline of having to achieve consensus helps moderate some of the more wacky design ideas and helps ensure that the resulting standards represent best practice. So spend some time reviewing usability standards, especially the hugely influential ISO 9241 standard.

Review your mobile channel

Every year we’re told that “This will be the year for mobile”. We may not see a step change in 2012 but we will certainly see more of the same. If your mobile channel is simply your web site plus ‘pinch-to-zoom’ then this is a good place to start to improve the experience of your users. For your mobile channel, take the red routes you’ve identified and strip away everything else.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

There has never been a better time to work in the field of user experience. Every year sees more books, more web articles, more resources, more reports and more online tools — and many of these are free. The chances are, whatever you want to do, someone has already done something similar that you can learn from. Issac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” — and you can do the same.

Define a user experience objective

Many people still think usability is a nebulous concept: “I’m not sure what it is, but I know it when I see it.” In fact, we can measure usability like any other engineering attribute. And if you can measure it, you can set start defining and measuring the experience your users have. This will help you make design decisions, measure progress and communicate with the project team and senior management. So think about the kind of user experience you want your users to have and then think about how you might define and measure that experience.

Design a paper prototype

This year, when you start your next design activity, step away from your computer. Instead, grab a few sheets of paper and create an interactive, paper prototype. This will allow you to involve users early in the design process, show you how people will use your system before you’ve written any code, and encourage you to design iteratively.

Make a site visit

We’ve all got a preconceived idea of the jobs our users do along with an idealised view of the way they work. Sometimes this idea may be fairly accurate but in my experience most of the time it’s just plain wrong. The point is that you’ll never know one way or the other if you don’t sanity check your assumptions. So make a pledge this year to spend a day or so visiting your users in their place of work or play. It will get you out of the office and all you need to do is observe and ask the right questions.

Take your user’s perspective

People in the Occupy encampment outside St. Paul’s in London have a poster that reads, “What would Jesus do?” The idea behind this question is to get people thinking from a perspective that’s different from their own and although we all think we can do this, it’s actually quite hard. There’s a slew of research in cognitive psychology that shows we suffer from a range of social biases that act against this tendency. One example is the fundamental attribution error: when I make a mistake, I blame the context (“Sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible”), but when you make a mistake it’s because of a flaw in your personality (“I’m not surprised Sam’s late, he’s so disorganised”). So take a deep breath, step back, and really try to empathise with your users as they go about their tasks with your system.

Think beyond the obvious

Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of that tortuous ‘creativity game’: list as many ways as possible to use a house brick. Most people find it hard to come up with more than about 8 ideas, but this is still 7 more than most designers seem to consider when developing a user interface. The consequence is that many designs are based on the easiest or most obvious implementation. Instead, sketch several design ideas before thinking about implementation and ask if any of these will create a better user experience than your initial idea.

Review your visual design

Non-visual designers aren’t always sure how to go about evaluating a visual design. They tend to feel that, because they can’t draw, they can’t really add anything useful to the conversation. In fact, you can use four key principles of visual design to assess a user interface’s usability: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Take a look at the screens in your system against these 4 principles and see how you can improve.

Evaluate your error messages

Nobody loves error messages. Users hate them because an error message implies they’ve done something stupid. Programmers hate them because they’re a diversion from coding. Designers hate them because they’re like epiphenomena, irrelevant to the main job of the user interface. That’s probably why the phrasing of error messages in many design teams seems as if it’s been relegated to an unpaid intern. You can do better. Review all of the error messages in your system and ask: Are they helpful? Constructive? Precise? Do they avoid blame? Your users may not love your error messages but this will help remove some of their pain.

Audit your system for accessibility

There are 8.6 million disabled people in the UK (14% of the population). One in 12 men and one in 200 women have some form of colour blindness (9% of the UK population). Two million UK residents have a sight problem (4% of the population). There are 12 million people aged 60 or over (21% of the UK population) and aging leads to deterioration in vision, hearing, dexterity and memory. Many of these people are your customers, so it’s worth checking to see that you haven’t put any major obstacles in the way of their use of the system. Simple changes, like improving the “alt” text you use on images, can have a big effect on improving the experience of your users.

Embed usability into your company’s processes

Let’s be honest: the user experience of your system will show most improvement not by applying 20 top tips but by embedding usability as part of your company’s processes. Site visits, usability tests, user involvement, usability design reviews — these should be regular, timetabled events during project development. If these aren’t happening in your company, why not spend this year trying to institutionalise usability within your company or at least trying to sell the idea of usability to your boss?

Make it happen

Make a commitment to putting some of these ideas into practice by doing the following: Make a note of the 3 suggestions you liked the most. Now open your calendar and schedule dates for those 3 activities in the next 3 months. Make it happen!

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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