The Importance of Usability

Build it and they will come? Build it and they will use it? How often do you go to a website and say I can’t figure out this thing or I can’t find what I need? Whether you are building a consumer or enterprise web application, you need it to be user friendly. In reality user friendliness is thought of as “pretty-ing it up”, something done after an application is already coded up. A wireframe or application skeleton gets thrown over to a graphic designer in hopes that they application will just work. However usability goes to the core of the product. It is how your users interact with your product.

The reason I love usability improvement is that often times a small change can have a tremendous impact on the bottom line. Often times, you do not even have to change the core features of your product to make something more usable. Something as trivial as color, size, position or verbage can often change and affect user behavior. As designers and developers of a product, we are often too close and too attached to what we make to see how something may not be obvious to an uninformed user.

“If only the user would do this.” “The user is doing it wrong.” “Why can’t they just see the button.” “It’s right in front of them.” These are the excuses we make to ourselves when first presented with the evidence that our product might not be all that user friendly. We write it off as the user’s fault. However the user is not at fault. Users are users. They will do what they do and you have no control over that. If users never read the directions and always start clicking around, then get rid of the directions and start offering in context help as they click around.

What happens when clients say I can’t afford usability design or research. I say you can’t afford not to have good usability on your website. What’s the point of having a nice looking website or application if people can’t figure it out and leave. The thing is, usability testing can be done on the cheap nowadays. If you have the stomach for it, just go to a coffee shop and ask people to try your software. You’ll be amazed and depressed to see all your design assumptions fall down like a house of straw. Very inexpensive software like Silverback lets you do usability testing on a budget. If you feel like outsourcing, check out UserTesting. You tell them what site to check out, pick out the number of testers, pick the demographics and they send you back a video file of the users screen as they go through your application, complete with a train of thought voice over from the user. Alternatively you can just try something like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Taking a real world analogy, I often frequent this restaurant in downtown Chicago that has a great salad bar. The only problem is that they put the dressing in front of the actual salad. If you are in a line, you come to the salad bar and get your greens. Then you have to awkwardly ask the stranger behind you to move because you have to reach back to the dressing. I pointed this out to the manager that the flow of this was all wrong and it was a major inconvenience to his patrons. He looked at me as if I was some sort of crackhead telling him how to do his job. Now I like the place enough to come back, but this decision to place the salad dressing in front of the salad inconveniences all the patrons that go to the salad bar. People move forward and invariably all have to cut backwards in line. Now I’m sure many websites, including my own have problems very similar to these, but without usability studies or testing, we’d never uncover them. This is why I think Usability is important.

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