30 July, 2008

Misconceptions About Usability

Misconceptions about usability's expense, the time it involves, and its creative impact prevent companies from getting crucial user data, as does the erroneous belief that existing customer-feedback methods are a valid driver for interface design.

Most companies still don't employ systematic usability methods to drive their design. The resulting widespread ignorance about usability has given rise to several misconceptions that warrant a response.

Usability Is Expensive

Yes, big computer companies have been known to invest in million-dollar usability labs. Yes, experienced usability professionals are very highly paid. And yes, large-scale user testing to compare multiple design alternatives across several countries can cost $200,000 or more. Ouch.

But most everyday usability projects are cheap. Small companies don't need labs; you can run user tests in a spare conference room. Rather than hiring expensive usability professionals with ten years' experience, you can teach existing staff how to conduct studies. And, even though international studies are great, you don't start there: just spend a few days testing five domestic customers.

Even with a budget of $200, you can do usability. The methods are incredibly flexible and scale up or down according to circumstance. On average, best practices call for spending 10% of a design budget on usability. That's a cheap way to ensure that you spend the remaining 90% correctly, rather than blow your budget on an unworkable design.

Usability Engineering Will Delay My Launch Date

Case study reports are typically issued by companies that have followed the entire user-centered design process to the letter, starting with field studies. These descriptions of the great and the good can be daunting for projects with smaller budgets and tighter schedules.

Usability need not be grandiose. The simplest user testing method I recommend takes three days, but even faster tests are possible -- especially if you use methods like paper prototyping, which lets you crank through new design iterations in a few hours.

One of the main benefits of letting user research drive design is that you don't have to spend time on features that users don't need. Early studies will show you where to focus your resources so that you can ship on time.

Finally, usability can save time by helping you quickly settle arguments in the development team. Most projects waste countless staff hours as highly paid people sit in meetings and argue over what users might want or what they might do under various circumstances. Instead of debating, find out. It's faster, particularly because running a study requires only one team member's time.

Usability Kills Creativity

Design is basically problem solving under constraints: you must design a system that can actually be built, that's within budget, and that works in the real world. Usability adds one more constraint: the system must be relatively easy for people to use. This constraint exists whether or not you include formal usability methods in your design process.

Human short-term memory holds only so many chunks of information. If you require users to remember too much, the design will be error-prone and hard to use because people will forget things when you overload their memory.

Also, if you're designing a website, it will be one of millions available to users and they'll grant you only so much of their attention before they move on.

These are facts of life. All usability does is to make them explicit so that you can account for them in your design. Usability guidelines tell you how people typically behave with similar designs. User testing tells you how people behave with your proposed design. You can pay attention to this data or ignore it; the real world remains the same regardless.

Knowing real-world facts increases creativity because it offers designers ideas about design improvement and inspires them to focus their energy on real problems.

Following design conventions doesn't destroy creativity. Conventions and standards for interface design are like a dictionary for the English language: they define the meaning of interface units and offer guidelines for stringing them together. But the dictionary doesn't define whether you're writing Harry Potter, a Stephen King thriller, or an Alertbox column. Writing offers ample creative opportunity, despite the standard expectation that you'll use language in ways that readers can understand. Interaction designers can be equally creative, despite a requirement that they design for the characteristics of homo sapiens.

We Don't Need Usability, We Already Listen to Customer Feedback

Market research methods such as focus groups and customer satisfaction surveys are great at researching your positioning or which messages to choose for an advertising campaign. They are not good at deciding user interface questions -- in fact, they're often misleading.

When a group of people is sitting around a comfortable table munching snacks, they're easily wowed by demos of a website's fancy features and multimedia design elements. Get those people to sit alone at a computer, and they're likely to leave the same website in short order.

The most famous example of the demo effect occurs with 3-D user interfaces, especially fly-throughs for complex data sets. These systems always look incredibly cool and compelling, yet they almost never work in actual use.

Seeing something demo'd and actually having to use it are two very different things. Likewise, what customers say and what customers do rarely line up; listening to customers uses the wrong method to collect the wrong data.

Luckily, the correct usability methods are cheap, easy to implement, and won't delay your project. So why would you rely on misleading methods that are typically more expensive?

Where to Test Usability

If you run at least one user study per week, it's worth building a dedicated usability laboratory. For most companies, however, it's fine to conduct tests in a conference room or an office — as long as you can close the door to keep out distractions. What matters is that you get hold of real users and sit with them while they use the design. A notepad is the only equipment you need.

When to Work on Usability

Usability plays a role in each stage of the design process. The resulting need for multiple studies is one reason I recommend making individual studies fast and cheap. Here are the main steps:

1. Before starting the new design, test the old design to identify the good parts that you should keep or emphasize, and the bad parts that give users trouble.
2. Unless you're working on an intranet, test your competitors' designs to get cheap data on a range of alternative interfaces that have similar features to your own. (If you work on an intranet, read the intranet design annuals to learn from other designs.)
3. Conduct a field study to see how users behave in their natural habitat.
4. Make paper prototypes of one or more new design ideas and test them. The less time you invest in these design ideas the better, because you'll need to change them all based on the test results.
5. Refine the design ideas that test best through multiple iterations, gradually moving from low-fidelity prototyping to high-fidelity representations that run on the computer. Test each iteration.
6. Inspect the design relative to established usability guidelines, whether from your own earlier studies or published research.
7. Once you decide on and implement the final design, test it again. Subtle usability problems always creep in during implementation.

Don't defer user testing until you have a fully implemented design. If you do, it will be impossible to fix the vast majority of the critical usability problems that the test uncovers. Many of these problems are likely to be structural, and fixing them would require major rearchitecting.

The only way to a high-quality user experience is to start user testing early in the design process and to keep testing every step of the way.

How to Improve Usability

There are many methods for studying usability, but the most basic and useful is user testing, which has three components:

* Get hold of some representative users, such as customers for an e-commerce site or employees for an intranet (in the latter case, they should work outside your department).
* Ask the users to perform representative tasks with the design.
* Observe what the users do, where they succeed, and where they have difficulties with the user interface. Shut up and let the users do the talking.

It's important to test users individually and let them solve any problems on their own. If you help them or direct their attention to any particular part of the screen, you have contaminated the test results.

To identify a design's most important usability problems, testing five users is typically enough. Rather than run a big, expensive study, it's a better use of resources to run many small tests and revise the design between each one so you can fix the usability flaws as you identify them. Iterative design is the best way to increase the quality of user experience. The more versions and interface ideas you test with users, the better.

User testing is different from focus groups, which are a poor way of evaluating design usability. Focus groups have a place in market research, but to evaluate interaction designs you must closely observe individual users as they perform tasks with the user interface. Listening to what people say is misleading: you have to watch what they actually do.

Why Usability is Important

On the Web, usability is a necessary condition for survival. If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the homepage fails to clearly state what a company offers and what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost on a website, they leave. If a website's information is hard to read or doesn't answer users' key questions, they leave. Note a pattern here? There's no such thing as a user reading a website manual or otherwise spending much time trying to figure out an interface. There are plenty of other websites available; leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter a difficulty.

The first law of e-commerce is that if users cannot find the product, they cannot buy it either.

For intranets, usability is a matter of employee productivity. Time users waste being lost on your intranet or pondering difficult instructions is money you waste by paying them to be at work without getting work done.

Current best practices call for spending about 10% of a design project's budget on usability. On average, this will more than double a website's desired quality metrics and slightly less than double an intranet's quality metrics. For software and physical products, the improvements are typically smaller — but still substantial — when you emphasize usability in the design process.

For internal design projects, think of doubling usability as cutting training budgets in half and doubling the number of transactions employees perform per hour. For external designs, think of doubling sales, doubling the number of registered users or customer leads, or doubling whatever other desired goal motivated your design project.

24 July, 2008

Importance of Usability

Users should not have to think too hard when they are using your website. They should not have to refer to help screens and they shouldn't be made to feel stupid. Simply by observing your customers you can avoid this.

Web designers and developers often forget that they are not typical users. Web coders have a far more extensive knowledge of the website they are developing than the average user is ever going to have. Website owners also forget that they are experts in their field and typically use jargon & assumptions that are alien to their customers. After working on a project for some time it is easy to forget that others are not so familiar with what you do, don't understand your terminology or don't follow your logic. There may be aspects of the website that seem obvious to you that might in fact be utterly confusing to your users. It is therefore important to take a step back from to time to time and make sure you don't leave your users behind.

Usability Testing is an essential aspect of any user-centred approach that puts the user, rather than the website, at the center of the development process. Adopting such an approach advocates that the user should be foremost in any design decisions.

According to the International Standards Organization (ISO)...

"Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use."

ISO 9241-11: Guidance on Usability (1998)

But why is it so important for web design and what will it do for your business?

An effective website...

  • allows customers (users) to achieve their goals
  • has a high conversion rate
  • meets business objectives
  • delivers a positive brand image

An efficient website...

  • provides answers quickly
  • follows a logical sequence
  • doesn't waste resources
  • requires less content management time

A satisfied user...

  • achieves their goal
  • enjoys their experience
  • tells others
  • comes back again

23 July, 2008

Fundamentals of Graphic Design for A Visually Attractive Website

A website is primarily designed to win the attention of the eyes, and as such, graphic design plays an integral role in fulfilling this purpose. Let’s face it, who wants to browse the pages of a visually unappealing website, right? Much care should be observed in preparing the overall layout of our pages, and this requires a sound knowledge of the fundamentals of graphic design.

The very essence of graphic design can best be summarized by the acronym PIVP. That is, graphic design must be Purposeful, as it should be able to convey concepts and ideas to a certain group of individuals. Graphic design must also be Informative, to impart specific processes in a manner that the artist chooses. Graphic design uses a Visual language, as it shows instead of tells, through innovative illustrations as well as customary or cool fonts. Lastly, graphic design is likewise a Process, as the end product is the culmination of an evolution from a general medium to a specific piece. Many tools are available for the artist on the web.

In completing a design, much care must be given to the choice of color. Colors conjure certain emotions, and the use of different hues and tones is a way of manipulating the audience’s feelings to sway with the artist’s desires. Yellow, for example, is a stimulating color that invokes glee. Red, on the other hand, is a repressive color that implies desistance.

The artist is also tasked to guide the audience by taking into consideration what the latter would view first. Would he gaze from left to right, from top to bottom, as he normally would? Would a deviation from this pattern lead to confusion, or a novel presentation? Determining what order to pursue is the first task in formulating a layout. Once such is in motion, the artist should pay attention to the four principles of composition: balance, which demands an equal portioning of influence; Rhythm, which is a repeated pattern that can be used to produce a desired effect; Unity, which should assure that all the elements of the design belong together; and Emphasis, which determines what part of the design shall be seen first.

The artist can also influence the transmittal of the idea by using the design elements of line, shape, texture, space and size. Different exploitations of these elements would produce varying effects. An increase in size could invoke importance, for example. A smooth texture could summon a feeling of calmness.

The artist’s choice of perspective can also affect the piece’s illusion of depth. To illustrate, a 1-point perspective where the light converges in one vanishing point can lead to a more accentuated environment, though a 2-point and even a 3-point perspective can convey a more open atmosphere. With the advent of 3-D rendering, the artist can now stress how light affects the appearance of an object without having to worry about overlapping forms.

There are ideas, however, that mere illustrations would fail to reveal, hence the need for words. Words are presented through the use of typeface and fonts. Typeface refers to the consistent visual properties of the characters used, while fonts are groups of characters using similar styles. There are many free downloadable fonts in the web. They range from the traditional, to the cool fonts that reflect typesets in popular culture. TrueType fonts are the new universal standard, as they have displaced PostScript in many publishing environments.

Everything should come together to form an overall package of excellence. A veteran graphic artist would be able to determine this by instinct. It is something that only experience could teach us. And experience, well, it’s like a destination… we won’t be able to reach it if we don’t take that first step.

So hold on to that desire of building the most visually attractive website that you could. Everything starts with desire, after all.

16 July, 2008

What is graphic design?

“Graphic design is the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It responds to needs at once personal and public, embraces concerns both economic and ergonomic, and is informed by many disciplines, including art and architecture, philosophy and ethics, literature and language, science and politics and performance.

Graphic design is everywhere, touching everything we do, everything we see, everything we buy: we see it on billboards and in Bibles, on taxi receipts and on websites, on birth certificates and on gift certificates, on the folded circulars inside jars of aspirin and on the thick pages of children's chubby board books.

Graphic design is the boldly directional arrows on street signs and the blurred, frenetic typography on the title sequence to E.R. It is the bright green logo for the New York Jets and the monochromatic front page of the Wall Street Journal. It is hang-tags in clothing stores, postage stamps and food packaging, fascist propaganda posters and brainless junk mail.

Graphic design is complex combinations of words and pictures, numbers and charts, photographs and illustrations that, in order to succeed, demands the clear thinking of a particularly thoughtful individual who can orchestrate these elements so they all add up to something distinctive, or useful, or playful, or surprising, or subversive or somehow memorable.

Graphic design is a popular art and a practical art, an applied art and an ancient art. Simply put, it is the art of visualizing ideas.”

14 July, 2008

Most Web 2.0 trends are not that important for business sites

They still need to focus on getting Web 1.0 right: helping customers find the products, describing them in ways that make sense and making transactions more seamless. Blogs are certainly proof of the basic argument of usability, which is that making things easier will increase their value.

B2B websites are much worse than B2C sites

We conducted a major usability study of 170 B2B sites. I was appalled at what we found. These sites are difficult to navigate and they rarely answer customers’ questions in a straightforward manner. I think the reason B2B sites are so bad is that they often don’t take orders directly on the site. Thus, site managers don’t know how many customers they are losing. In contrast, many B2C sites track their business value closely and they know that their sales go up immensely when they make their sites more customer-focused.

Users are different from developers

Anyone working on a specific design project knows too much about that system and its functionality. People on the outside don’t have this special knowledge and they know less about technology. Therefore, they will often have grave difficulties using something the project team thinks is “obvious.” The only way around this conundrum is to do user testing and find out how the intended users behave when using the system.