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May 06, 2006  3 (Controversial) Techniques to Improve Usability

Usability is king. If you can help people accomplish something valuable, you'll succeed. But you already know this; the software industry has come a long way since the late-80s and early-90s. Other industries from grocery stores to snowshoes are also focused on building usable products and services.

There are many conferences, associations, and courses designed to help people learn how to build usable products. Hearing from people's real-life experience also helps, so here are three techniques that may seem counter-intuitive or controversial, but will greatly increase your chances of building a more usable product.

1. Embrace Ugliness

Subtle changes to color, typeface and layout can greatly affect usability. For this reason many people will spend a fair amount of time focusing on fine tuning the user interface to their product prior to its release. If you're working on the 10th iteration to Photoshop (which really should pick up the visual style of After Effects 7.0 by the way), this is reasonable. Photoshop is over a decade old and doing a face-lift to improve readability and increase the smoothness of the interface is well worth it.

That said, if you're working on a new product or a larger redesign, you must embrace ugliness. Do not spend a lot of time perfecting and fine-tuning the interface because you will only get attached to it. In the same way the designers at IDEO will make crude prototypes with cardboard and hot glue so that they can test 10 or 15 prototypes before deciding on one, you too must do this with your digital product. If you make something too pretty, too refined, it will take you longer to build it and longer to change it. It may kill your chances of success.

2. Skip the Lab Tests

Let's go back to Adobe once more. Adobe spends a lot of money on lab tests. They recruit people to come down to headquarters in San Jose, sit in a room with cameras and two-way mirrors, and go through detailed task analysis. All this is a big investment of time and money. For a multi-billion dollar company it's not particularly prohibitive but for a startup it can be a costly process that may not necessarily be the best way to improve usability.

Instead of sinking time and money in to doing lab tests, spend that time and money to instrument your product so that you can learn what real users and doing on their own machines in their own homes. Imagine if Photoshop had a plug-in that volunteers could install that would report back to Adobe how people were using the product--not just 6 people in a usability test, but thousands of people. Think of it as a Nielsen rating system, except for your product. On the web this is even easier because you can even fork your traffic to go through different interfaces and test in real-time which is doing the best.

The advantage of doing this is that unlike lab tests where there will always be debates about exactly how to change things, when the product is instrumented you can see a more direct link to changes and outcomes because the sample size is larger and you don't need to spend a lot of time screening and recruiting people to come to your office at night so you can watch over their shoulder.

3. Don't use Features as a Crutch

No matter what you build it seems like there's always a list a million items long of bells and whistles that people want you to add. In many cases people say they can't (or won't) use what you have unless those things are added. Especially with a new product, there are typically huge holes that have to be patched up in order to make it usable.

There is a trap here, however. A lot of times the core of the product is not what people want, but they try to make you feel better by enumerating a list of things they think you should shoe-horn in to make it less terrible.

If you've built something that no one is using, it is rare that adding enhancement features will get people to adopt it. Typically there is a core problem that has to be addressed. You've got a pig and people try to help you by suggesting you add lipstick, earrings, a scarf, and spray the thing down with Chanel No. 5. The problem is that you'll keep sinking time and money in to this pig until you've driven your company in to the ground. "If we could get another round of financing, we would paint the toe-nails, and I'm sure we'll have a hit on our hands!" you may be thinking.

Posted by johnnie at May 6, 2006 11:09 PM


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