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What is usability?

Posted by Jacob Creech on May 31st, 2011

Every day we talk about website usability testing, what it can do for you, how it can smooth out the design process, and how usability is an ongoing trend that people need to learn to focus on.

All of that said though, every day I get people asking me ‘What is usability, and why should I care?‘. Today I’d like to talk about what usability is, and why it’s so important. I’d love to hear your views on it too, so please feel free to share your opinion in the comments below.

What is usability?

So, what is usability? There are a number of good definitions floating around, these are a couple of the ones that really hit the spot:

The state or condition of being usable; The degree to which an object, device, software application, etc. is easy to use with no specific training – Wiktionary

Usability refers to the ease with which a User Interface can be used by its intended audience to achieve defined goals. Usability incorporates many factors: design, functionality, structure, information architecture, and more – Sitepoint

Something easy to learn and easy to understand. Seems simple enough, right? But when you turn your mind to thinking of sites or products that truly meet this goal, how many can you think of? What examples come to mind?

My examples:

Mac OS X

Mac OS X

Mac OS X is well known because ‘it just works’. The simple tasks you would want to achieve are very simple to achieve. The important information is easy to find. Things that say they will work with OS X just work.

Especially if you live inside the Apple ecosystem, everything behaves in a simple and logical way. No blue screens of death, no clippy, no ugly pop up warning bubbles. It just works.

Retail Me Not - save money with coupon codes

Retail Me Not - coupon codes made easy

Retail Me Not is a great website to help you save money on the internet. If you often come to sites that ask if you have a coupon code, then this site will save you money. They have coupon codes for tons of different sites, and the site is designed to make the process of using the coupon codes as simple as possible.

When you find a code you want to use (with the simple, straight forward search function), just click on it and it will be copied to your clipboard. If it’s a referral link it will open up in your browser for you. You can see which codes are working at a glance, and share your own experience with the community. A great way to save money.

Kiwibank is a bit different from regular banking sites. The navigation structure is surprisingly clear and easy to use, and for what should be a content heavy site, none of the pages slap you in the face with too much content.

The important things are easy to find and easy to understand, and you are never more than a couple of layers from the content you are looking for.

They also developed their site without flash (which seems to appear awfully often on banking sites) so it’s extremely accessible as well.

Some more examples:

I’ve actually wrote a post last year over at 1stWebDesigner talking about 9 great examples of well designed, usable sites. Check out the list and see what you think.

Another great site that shows examples of UIs that have had a bit more thought than most is Little Big Details. They have a whole range of examples showing how little details make a big difference to the user experience. Well worth a look.

Why is usability so important?

  1. It gives users a better experience: The more your users enjoy your site, the more likely they are to return, the more likely they are to recommend it to others, and the better your site or product will do in the long run.
  2. It helps you stand out from the competition: Why did the iPod sell so well? It was simple, did what users needed it to do, and not a lot more. It was an extremely usable product in a market where people used to think cramming devices with a million and one different features that barely worked at all was the way to succeed.
  3. It’s what most people want: Well there are a few people who actually like things to be complex and customise things in a million different ways, the mass market wants things that are simple, straight forward and just work.
  4. It means people can spend more time doing, and less time learning: The more usable the interface, the more time people can spend enjoying themselves, making purchases, interacting with your site and achieving goals that are important to you.
  5. You spend less time, money and effort on support: If your site or product is simple and straightforward to use it will require far less support, saving you time, money and energy.

Of course, there is more to usability than this, but these are some really fundamental points about why usability is so important. Regardless of what industry you are in, regardless of the sites or products that you build, good usability will make a big difference.

Your turn

We want your opinion

We want your opinion

So, you’ve seen some examples of what usability is to me and why I think it’s important, and now I’d like to see what usability is to you.

What are your examples of great sites? What products come to mind for you? Or are there any sites or products you can think of that are fail on the usability front?

We’d love to do a usability review of some outstanding sites so people know what is working, and why it works so well, as well as sites that could use some improvement to improve their usability. Be sure to let us know in the comments below.

Interested in learning more about usability and user experience? Curious to see one of our upcoming usability reviews? Subscribe to our RSS feed, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to keep up with all the latest news.

And don’t forget to share your comments on sites you love and hate in the comments below. Thanks for dropping by!


Usability testing: What to test

Posted by Jacob Creech on May 24th, 2011

When you have decided that you want to usability test, one of the first things you have to consider is what you are going to usability test. Although this may sound like a very straightforward question, there are a number of facets you need to consider to make your test successful and to ensure you are testing the right things.

Of course, what you are trying to test can vary a lot depending on the product or service you are working on, but there are some simple rules that you can follow to ensure you get the best, most effective results you can from your testing process.

What to consider when usability testing:

What do users do on your site/service?

Do you know what your users do when they come to your site or are using your service? How do they get from place to place? What sort of information are they trying to find? Do they follow the path that you’d imagine?

There a number of different ways you can work this out, but one of the easiest is looking at your analytics data. Not using analytics? Check out Clicky (which has free and premium options) for a great, user friendly analytics experience.

Clicky analytics - what are users looking for?

Use your analytics data to see what's popular.

From your analytics data you can get an idea of where users are going, how they are getting there, and how long they spend in each place. If you discover all of your users are looking for your contact information, then you might want to make your contact information more prominent. If you find everyone is using your search box in order to find a certain your blog or your about page, you might consider making those areas more prominent.

Try this on for an exercise: ask a friend or family member to use your site or service, and see if they can complete some common tasks. If they can complete the tasks, did they use the method that you would have thought? If they didn’t complete it, what tripped them up? You’d be surprised at the huge array of different ways people complete seemingly simple or obvious tasks.

Chrome - searching for google

Google-ing for Google. Yes, it happens.

To this day, I never cease to be astounded by the amount of people who type ‘Google’ into the Chrome address bar, or even into the Firefox ‘Search’ bar. You will find the same astounding things by testing on your own site.

Once you’ve seen how your users really use your site, and the sort of information that they are looking for, you can then think of testing questions that will cover these points, and using your test results, you can streamline the process to make it as efficient and enjoyable as possible. You will be surprised how large a difference even a few small changes can make to your users.

What do you want users to achieve?

What are you goals for your site or service? What do you want users to do when they arrive? What do you want them to achieve?

Goal: sign up for IntuitionHQ

We want users to sign up to IntuitionHQ. Hint.

Write down a list of goals, and think of all the things that are really important for your site or service. It might be subscribing to your RSS feed, it might be finding your blog content, it might be a link to your LinkedIn profile. Whatever it is, however many points there are, write them all down and then go ahead and test them.

If your users can manage to do all these simple tasks in good time, then you don’t need to worry, but in my experience 99.9% of sites and have some sort of tweaks they could make that would improve the overall experience of using the site.

Google vs Bing Usability Test

Look at the average click time and the location of clicks. A clear win for Google.

In our recent comparison of the Google and Bing search engines (the UI, not the actual search results) we found a number of small tweaks that even major search engines like these could make. It may not sound like much, but each second you shave off, or each time you make a small tweak that makes things easier to find or understand, a user is that much more likely to return to your site, or to use your app.

Of course, the more that users can achieve your goals, that happier you should be as well, so it’s definitely worth testing to ensure that this is happening.

What are the important features of the site/app?

As well as the important goals that you’d like people achieve, there are also probably a number of things you’d like users to notice on your site. Can they even tell what the site is about when the arrive there? Can they find your pricing page? Can they find the sign up or sign in button?

Easy website usability testing - IntuitionHQ

We want people to remember our tagline, and to have easy access to important pages

You know best what are the most important features, that along with your previously mentioned goals that you would like users to notice. If even a small percentage of people can’t find the pricing page, this might prevent them from signing up and have an impact on your bottom line. There are many apps and services that I’ve come across that seem to be lacking a pricing page, or the link to it is impossible to find – it’s enough to prevent me signing up, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. A quick test will show just how visible your pricing page is.

What about the message you want users to take away after viewing your site? Why not ask them what element of your site stands out the most? When users come to the IntuitionHQ site, we want them to remember that we are a quick, easy usability testing service. What do you want your users to remember? Do a test to make sure the message they are taking away is what you want it to be.

What next?

Once you’ve considered all the important points of your site, what the users are looking for, and what you’d like them to achieve, make a list and think of questions you can use to test each point. If you’ve got a couple of different ideas you’d like to test against each other, why not run an A/B test? Want to see what your users prefer? A preference test will help you out there.

Our experience shows that tests with 15 or less questions are much more effective and less likely to have a drop off in respondents. Any more than 15 questions and users start to get distracted. Think of the most important points and try and fit them all into one test. If you have many more than 15 points, run a second test.

Think carefully about the wording of your questions, and keep an eye out for our upcoming post on writing great questions for usability tests. Try not to lead your users in a certain direction with the way in which you word your questions, or your results will lose some validity.

Hopefully this post gives you some ideas about what you should be testing and why it’s important. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below and we’ll do our best to help you out. Happy testing.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our RSS feed for more great usability testing tips and advice, as well as our upcoming article on how to write great questions for usability testing. Thanks for dropping by!


10 Great Reasons to Usability Test

Posted by Jacob Creech on May 13th, 2011

For all the tips I give on usability testing, explanations of how to get started, the reviews of different services I do, I get a very large number of people asking me why they should actually test in the first place (as if those examples weren’t enough!).

Today I’d like to present (in no particular order) a quick post on 10 reasons that everyone should perform usability testing. Read on to see a few reasons I think you should run usability tests, and be sure to add your own reasons in the comments below.

10 Reasons to Usability Test

Door usability fail

1) Improve usability

It (should) goes without saying, usability testing will improve the usability of your sites, apps, user interface, or whatever else you are designing. Imagine publishing a magazine or newspaper without having an editor read it first; that’s effectively what you are doing by launching a site without usability testing.

Usability testing will show up all those little navigation and ui problems, will help you discover all sorts of tweaks you can make, and will give you a whole new understanding of how users interact with your site or app – extremely valuable information to have at your fingertips.

2) Improve user experience

Following on from improved usability is an improved user experience. If users have to spend too much time looking for your ‘add to cart’ or ‘subscribe by RSS‘ button they simply won’t bother. After implementing the results of your testing, you will remove the vast majority of these issues for the vast majority of your users, and they will enjoy using your site or app so much more because of it.

See what colour blind people see

3) Improve accessibility

I recently wrote a post on the user experience of colour, and was really interested to find in the comments a huge number of people pointed out how colour can have a huge impact on accessibility; roughly 8% of men and .5% of women are colour blind so that is a huge group you have to consider.

There are all sorts of things that can affect usability aside from colour blindness, and the best way to find them is to get out there, test your site or app, and see what you find.

4) Produce more satisfied clients

The better their site works, the happier your clients will be. If users spend more time on the site, and are more likely to recommend it to others, they will be very happy. This is what a usable site with a good user experience can do, and this is what usability testing can do for your site or app.

Of course, the happier your clients are, the more likely they are to use your service again in the future, and the more likely they are to recommend you to others as well. All good things for you.

Use social media for usability testin

5) Make users feel involved

We frequently receive feedback from IntuitionHQ users who are surprised to find how much their users enjoy and appreciate being part of the testing process. It means the users take some ownership of the site, and feel much more attached to it.

Including users in the testing process really helps contribute to a sense of community, and that is something all sites or apps should be looking to build.

6) Save time

It’s much easier and faster to know what needs fixing when you’ve got results in front of you showing just what is wrong in the first place. The sooner you can fix things, the sooner you can move forward with your project, and the better it will be because of it. You really can save a ton of time by usability testing.

Avoid design by committee

7) Avoid design by committee

Ever been to one of those meetings where every man and his dog has an opinion on why this button should be there, that colour should be 2 shades lighter, and why the design expert is wrong in a dozen other ways?

Having results from usability testing can show all the reasons why things are the way they are, or how they should be different. It’s very hard to argue when you’ve got a bunch of results from users showing what the best design or user interface would be.

8) Develop a new skill set

One of the best ways to learn a new skill is by getting out there and doing it. Set up a test on your own site or app, and see what you find. Questions? Get out there on Twitter or Facebook and ask questions, talk about usability testing and user experience and you will learn a heap.

Keep making the most of the resources at your disposal, and you will learn a lot in no time at all. The more testing the do, the more you will understand, and the more impact your testing will have because of it. It’s really a circle of greatness.

Definition of reputation

9) Improve your own reputation

There are a million and one web and app developers out there, and although there is some (read: huge) variation in quality between these different developers, it’s hard to always stand out in a crowded market. Developing a reputation for producing usable, enjoyable websites will help set you apart from others. Happy clients who recommend you to others will help you stand out. Even offering a usability testing service in the first place will help you stand out.

It’s true for business owners too; if your site provides a better, more usable experience than the competition, users will be much more likely to return and spend money or time with your site, and all of these will do wonders for your business.

The more positive ways you stand out from those around you, the better your business will do, and easier life will be for you.

10) Add to your bottom line

Usability testing, and an understanding of usability is something you can really sell people on. Once they can see the benefits of usability testing, they will be pressing you to add this to your service, and it is something people are more than prepared to pay for. For example, setting up a test on IntuitionHQ costs only $9, but where the value lies is you expertise at setting up the test, interpreting the results, and improving usability as a result.

So now what?

Hopefully this post helps you to see the benefits of usability testing. Remember, going out and testing doesn’t have to take much money, and can even help save you time. It makes you stand out from the competition, and it will make users and clients love you.

As Jakob Neilsen said, “A bad website is like a grumpy salesperson”, and the inverse is also a true. A good, usable, enjoyable website is a great salesman; the one that will help you get your foot in the door.

Get out there today, do some testing, and help make the internet a better place, one website at a time. Happy testing!

Are there any other points you’d like to see added to this list? What has your experience taught you? Be sure to let us know in the comments.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our RSS feed to keep up to date with all the latest developments in the usability community.


10 Quick Usability Testing Tips

Posted by Jacob Creech on May 4th, 2011

Many of these are rehashes from previous posts, but who doesn’t love seeing handy tips in list form? Let us know if there are any others you’d like to add to the list, or if there are any questions we can help with.

Whether you are a seasoned usability professional, or you are new to the scene, there are always some basic points that can help you on your merry usability testing way. These are a few of the handy tips that I keep using time and time again; I hope they can be of use to you too.

10 Quick Tips for Usability Testing:

It's always a good time to usability test

1) It’s always a good time to test

No matter what stage you are in the process it’s always a good time to get testing. At best you’ll find out your site is working perfectly, and at worst you’ll find out it’s a complete disaster. The great thing is, with results in hand, then you will know what to do with it.

2) Test early and test often

Following on from the previous point – start now, and keep testing regularly. It’s far easier to make small incremental changes throughout the lifespan of your site or product than it is to change one huge, unwieldily lump at the end of it.

Don't be afraid to get your designs out there - early Twitter design

3) Don’t be afraid to get your ideas out there

We’ve worked with a number of people launching new sites, and they all share the same concern of knowing when they are ready to start sharing their ideas. That want to keep tweaking this and that before they even begin the testing process. Let me tell you what, you can all save a ton of time and effort by testing now and testing often – that way you’ll actually know what to change.

4) Use everyone at your disposal

This is a very important point for many reasons: everyone uses the web in different ways, and has different experiences across every site that they use. Ask your Grandma, your kid cousin, your friends, ask anyone – you’ll be amazed at the feedback you get and the different ways people think of using the same site that you would never have considered. And it’s free too. What do you have to lose?

5) Don’t listen to the naysayers

People love to have opinions – it’s part of human nature – and with every test you run, and every question you ask there will always be someone telling you it’s wrong for this reason, or that button needs to be shifted there. They may be right, or they may be wrong – either way your results will show you – and you don’t need to listen to all the advice these people are throwing at you. Rejoice!

What kind of questions should you ask while usability testing - examples

6) Experiment with the questions you ask

There isn’t any hard or fast rule to asking the perfect question while testing. Have a bit of a play and see your results turn up. IntuitionHQ is just $9US a test for unlimited questions, and there are other cheap tools out there, so you have nothing to lose by playing around a bit and finding the perfect questions for your audience.

7) Use social media

Stumped while looking for testers? Social media is your friend. Almost everyone has a Facebook or Twitter account these days, and when you rope in all your friends and acquaintances you start to get some really useful results. Send us a Tweet @IntuitionHQ or leave a message on our Facebook page and we’ll be more than happy to shout out your test as well.

Did you know IntuitionHQ has social media integration baked in? Check it out!

8) The web is full of helpful communities

The web has a whole bunch of great communities for asking all your usability related questions. Aside from Twitter and Facebook, you can check out UX.StackExchange.com, WebDevRefinery, UXBooth and a whole lot more for some great advice. Leave a comment below and we’ll be more than happy to help you out as well.

Usability Testing - Heatmap Results

9) Learn from your results

Lots of people go into testing with preconceived ideas, and will try and spin the results to meet their goals. Needless to say, it’s not a very successful way to test. Try and keep and open mind, and listen to your users feedback. See what the results say, do your best to learn from them, and your site will be that much better for it.

10) Do it now

This is more or less the same point I finish every post with; most people will read through this, think ‘hey, that makes sense’ and then put it on a pile of things they’d like to do someday in the future. If you really want to make a difference to your site, and to your users get out there and do it now.

Talking with friends or family about your site takes next to time. Setting up a test on services like IntuitionHQ takes only a couple of minutes. Remember, any testing is better than none, and even a few minutes is enough to make a difference. Get out there and do it – you’ll be amazed what you can learn.

Questions about usability testing?

Do you have questions about usability testing, how to get started with usability testing, how to integrate usability testing into your design process, or anything else? Be sure to let us know in the comments and we’ll be more than happy to help you out.

Happy testing all!

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Posted in: Articles, Usability