Usability Notes For Hot Websites

Posted by Big Melv
Sep 28 2013

A successful user-centered project naturally begins with a clear picture of the user. Understanding your audience not only gives the selected vendor a headstart; it also provides a vital foundation for system requirements, which influences every area of the system, says Company Magazine. Leverage the expertise of your organization to gather consumer demographics and psychographics. Understand the user’s domain knowledge, environment, background, and familiarity with the Internet and technology. If possible, conduct a user-needs analysis, which helps you develop a business case outlining user-centered requirements and measurable objectives.

Advisor Tip

hwsA usability test of an existing system helps you better understand your current user base. It also identifies specific problems that must be rectified through the redesign, as well as provides a baseline for measuring the success of that redesign.

Develop a solid set of requirements

Whether you’re creating a new product or enhancing an existing one, there’s a reason to look for outside expertise. Maybe your site isn’t getting enough repeat visitors, or maybe your internal staff can be more productive if technology carries more burden. Your perceived need is the foundation for your system requirements.

These suggestions help you: (a) maximize the probability that your needs are met; and (b) establish an appropriate level of specificity to provide the greatest value to the usability group.

1. Go beyond the features list. Don’t let your requirements become simply a list of features the new system must contain. Such lists are built with an underlying assumption that if the new system has these features, it meets the perceived need. While a list of expected features is worthwhile, the assumptions behind them mustn’t be lost. To let the vendor correctly assess the applicability of requirements (and provide strategic direction), you must expressly state the needs that the requirements are intended to satisfy.

2. Explicitly require the achievement of specific goals. For greatest impact, you must define success criteria that are performance-based and that implicitly tie the system’s usability to specific business objectives. Here are some examples of criteria whose attainment is directly affected by a Web site’s usability:

* The average number of repeat visitors per month must increase by 20 percent.

* Calls to the Help desk must decrease by 30 percent.

* First-time users must successfully complete checkout in an average of four minutes or less.

ADVISOR[R] TIP[TM]

Distill success criteria down to two or three fundamental needs to keep the project focused and to prevent a lengthy assessment period at the project’s end.

3. Express what must be done, not how it should be done. It’s appropriate to have specific ideas about how you want the product to look and act, but don’t become too constrained by your ideas, and prevent those ideas from leaking into the requirements. Instead of embedding design into requirements, keep the implementation purposely ambiguous to avoid implicitly dictating designs. Here are two examples:

Instead of: There must be a Chat Area link in the standard header of every page;

Use: The site’s Chat Area must be readily accessible from any point in the site.

Instead of: Pressing the Add to Cart button must take the user to the Shopping Cart page;

Use: The user must have clear and immediate confirmation of success when he adds anything to the Shopping Cart.

ADVISOR[R] TIP[TM]

Dictating what goes on what page, talking about links as “buttons,” etc. are clear indications that designs have crept into your requirements. When you discover an implied design, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve here?” The answer is nearly always the actual requirement.

Develop a quality RFP

A request for proposal (RFP) is sometimes all consultants have to go on as they begin preparing the pitch. As such, your RFP must contain all the necessary information for a consultant to develop a proposal to meet your needs. Be prepared to invest some time developing the RFP. Here are some issues to consider:

1. Include the requirements and performance-based success criteria.

2. Define all unusual terms and use consistent terminology across the document.

3. Provide as much information about your target audience as you can.

4. Include the results of any usability tests you’ve conducted.

5. State the expected educational and experiential background of the vendor.

6. Include time and budget constraints.

7. Walk through your own requests to make sure the constraints are realistic.

Select the right vendor

There are three general classes of vendors that can provide usability outsourcing:

* General IT consulting firms, such as Andersen Consulting and KPMG

* Pure-play Internet consulting companies, such as marchFIRST and Sapient

* Usability consulting companies, such as the Nielson Norman Group and Cognetics

There are a wide variety of focuses and skills within each class of vendors. Some may solely provide usability testing, while others have a methodology that weaves usability throughout the lifecycle. Some vendors may have more experience with graphical user interfaces (GUIs), while others excel at Web design. Different projects necessitate different types of vendors, but here are a few general questions to ask before you make your choice:

1. Do they have a dedicated usability group (rather than developers or graphics designers doubling as usability specialists)?

2. Do they have a proven track record? Can they provide tangible evidence of their expertise, such as examples of Web sites they’ve designed?

3. Can they clearly articulate their usability methodology and describe the techniques they use?

4. Can they provide examples of the deliverables they’re describing?

5. Does their methodology employ usability throughout the lifecycle (in contrast to “after-the-fact” testing)?

6. Will they follow up to ensure initial successes aren’t just novel effects due to marketing?

7. Will they provide an original usability strategy, or does it seem they just create what you tell them to create?

Executing the project

Develop a user-centered project plan

A user-centered process doesn’t typically adhere to the traditional waterfall method of development. Depending on the situation, there are many ways to approach a user-centered project. Here are a few broad guidelines whether you or the consultants actually create the plan.

1. Provide sufficient time in the analysis/discovery phase for the usability group to develop user profiles, analyze user tasks, evaluate the current Web site, etc.

2. Ensure usability begins up front and continues throughout the lifecycle; set up dependencies and arrange project tasks so that usability actually drives the process in many respects.

3. Plan to test achievement of stated success criteria at the end of the project.

4. Build iteration into the plan to (a) integrate evaluation into the design/development process; and (b) allow the evaluation to affect the user interface, as necessary.

5. Don’t begin development of any underlying technology until the usability group has developed a strategy and has completed at least the first iteration of design.

Provide ongoing support

The right environment can make a big difference in the success of the user-centered design process. Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

1. Give the usability experts some creative license. Don’t create a situation where the constraints are so stifling that the experts end up simply putting down what they expect you want. Let them know you support exploration within the project’s boundaries.

2. Ensure they have all the tools. Provide any user information you have, such as demographic information, to the usability group, even if it’s already stated in the RFP. (Sometimes those who actually do the work have never seen the RFP.)

3. Make the target audience available to the usability group. When developing public Web sites, assist in recruiting for usability tests directly and/or supply incentives (such as gift certificates) to participants. For intranet projects where internal employees are the target audience, eliminate negative impacts for assisting with system development (for example, higher workload because employees missed a day of work), and maximize rewards (such as bonus pay).

Watch for red flags

Since usability engineering is still relatively new for many people, there’s potential for snags along the way. Here are a few things to watch for:

1. Developers complain that usability makes their lives harder. This is a fairly common complaint because the usability expert’s job is essentially to shift the burden from the user to the underlying technology. This situation can be lessened throughout the project if management and the requirements place the emphasis on the user experience rather than on the technology, and developers have internalized the goal of a usable system.

ADVISOR[R] TIP[TM]

Make sure the usability specialist’s suggested designs are truly reasonable before placing all fault with developers.

2. Graphic designers feel their territory is being invaded. Usability professionals must be sensitive to roles–especially when they’re outsiders working with in-house designers. The usability experts should establish site organization, navigation, and vocabulary, but they should purposely avoid dictating aspects of the screen that belong to the graphic designer.

ADVISOR[R] TIP[TM]

If graphic designers have traditionally handled all aspects of the user interface, try positioning the usability specialist as someone who can shoulder the burden of functionality to let the designers focus on what they do best: aesthetics.

3. There’s a lot of redesign going on. Some redesign is natural because of the iterative design process, but substantial redesign can mean the vendor’s methodology is broken. The usability process typically looks at the system as a whole, staying general as long as possible before beginning to design for specific areas of the system. When the design moves to the specific areas too quickly, rework is often the result–especially on large Web sites. That’s because the usability group sees patterns as they move from one system area to the next and they need to create a general design that handles all the examples. The fix is to back up and spend time designing at the broad, general level before going deep and specific.

4. The usability vendor doesn’t seem to need real users. Sometimes the situation calls for a simple, heuristic approach. Other times, budget and/or time constraints may prevent the inclusion of real users in the process. However, more often than not, the usability professionals must interview and evaluate designs with real users. (Feel free to challenge them if they say they don’t.)

5. The usability designer is also doing the final usability test. There’s a potential for biased results when the person conducting the final usability test is the same person who designed the screens. It’s fine for the usability designer to design the usability test and be involved, but someone else should interact with users and interpret the results. This prevents the usability specialist from involuntarily making results come out as expected.

What to expect

Imagine you’re writing a brochure to promote your company. If you invest the time and effort to thoroughly understand your audience and write and rewrite, your result effectively carries your company message to the reader. The brochure itself becomes an almost transparent vehicle to the underlying message.

Conversely, if you don’t invest the necessary resources, readers get bogged down in the condescending tone, unfamiliar terms, poor grammar, etc., and never fully grasp your intended message. In fact, your company image can be tarnished because of the difficulty you caused the potential customer.

Usability is analogous to writing a brochure. Done right, usability is something most people won’t notice; but done wrong, it’s something that gets you bad ink in The Wall Street Journal.

If your system is truly usable, you can expect to meet your business goals, including:

* Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty

* Reduced support and maintenance costs

* Increased sales and productivity

Don’t be fooled into thinking that “easy to use” implies “easy to create.” If the usability team has done its job well, the result is a product that’s extremely straightforward, clean, and usable. Therefore, while you meet your business goals, you may discover the vehicle for meeting those goals appears much simpler than you expected.

2 Responses

  1. Ted M says:

    I am thinking of taking my small business to the next level. I am planning on having someone create an official website where I can put the products I sell on display.

    It’s nice to know that there are guidelines like this that can help novices like me to identify whether or not the website created for us will be effective or not.