Predict your “usable release” date by integrating user research

Question that stakeholders, project managers, and product owners have in common:

  • When will the product be finished?
  • When will a usable product be released?

Both questions could be answered by using the same method: a burn-down chart. But the second question requires adding certain user research findings to the chart.

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Ten ways to improve the usability of products that Agile teams build

Software development that uses a waterfall method is likely to deliver the wrong thing, too late. The intent of the Agile method is to deliver working software sooner, so the intended users—our clients and their customers—can provide feedback that steers us to deliver the right thing.

There’s a tension between delivering on time and delivering the right thing. In fact, the rush for on-time delivery can result in the wrong thing—an unusable product. There are ways to prevent this. User research can help. Continue reading “Ten ways to improve the usability of products that Agile teams build”

If the user can’t use it, it’s broken

A few days ago, I tried to pump up my bicycle. I knew what to do: add air to inflate the inner-tubes. And I knew that I’d need a pump. I had to borrow one.

Bike-tire pumpThe connectors and attachments suggested this pump would fit two types of inner-tube valve as well as valves for air mattresses, footballs, and basketballs. So, an all-round useful pump.

But the thing is, neither the pump’s owner nor I were able to make it work. We couldn’t connect the pump to the valve. So i wondered, did the manufacturer test this product by putting it in the hands of first-time and occasional users, to see how it performed?

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The right mental model makes software easier

Recently, a client told me we needed to redesign the main data-entry form of their company’s flagship product. Customers said they didn’t like the form in our client’s SaaS or cloud-based software. Despite extra training, customers still felt apprehensive and intimidated by its complexity.

The online form was built years ago, without a designer—as was typical of dot-com start-ups. Within a few years, iPhone and iPad showed people that software could be simpler, and that’s what our client’s customers wanted, too.

We were tasked with simplifying the form. We did this by simplifying the mental model from “Surprise juggling” to “Got gossip? Fill me in”.

Our user research and analysis proved that the new mental model let users work faster with fewer errors. Continue reading “The right mental model makes software easier”

Poor usability is a form of tech debt

If you’ve worked in software development for a while, you may have noticed that work on usability gets postponed more often than work on new features and functions. You could see this as a form of tech debt. It accumulates with every release.

What contributes to this accumulation?

  • Timing. Some usability issues aren’t identified until Alpha testing with customers begins, or until after the product is released.
  • Competition. There’s often pressure to leap ahead or catch up with competitors by adding new features and functions.
  • Budgeting. If multiple teams compete for a share of the development budget, something shiny and new may attract more funding than boring old maintenance, upgrades, and tech debt.

It’s not an either/or proposition. With every release you can give your product a bit more usability. And you can do this at a low-to-moderate cost and low-to-moderate risk.

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User research to adjust to regional needs

When communicating with audiences around the world, the text in your software or service user interface is important. You’ll need to translate.

Translation is just one step. Delivering software in multiple languages takes more than that. Products and services need to be adjusted to regional expectations.

Even things you may assume are universal concepts—such as names or money—may need to be adapted. User research can uncover those regional differences. Here’s a quick look at:

  • names, specifically middle initials
  • money, in the form of bank loans
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An expert review using heuristics versus a usability study

User researchers like to see products in the hands of users, and they like to analyse quantitative and qualitative data. But they also use heuristic methods, such as expert reviews, done without a user in sight.

Expert reviews are a shortcut that rely on a usability analyst’s expertise to identify gaps in a product when compared to a set of guidelines or heuristics.

You may have come across these heuristics:

  • Jakob Nielsen’s 10 general principles for interaction design.
  • The Agile manifesto’s principles, which also apply to software usability.
  • Jeremy Lyon’s five visual design principles that reinforce the software’s use and meaning.
  • A corporate style guide that sets out how to reinforce a brand’s visual presence.

I decided to use Lyon’s five visual-design principles to assess an online app that I worked on with a team of developers and user-interface designers. Would the expert review contradict or complement the findings of our usability research on the same product? Continue reading “An expert review using heuristics versus a usability study”

Reduce spam without hindering usability

If your website lets visitors sign up, join in, or add comments and reviews, then—in addition to the legitimate details you want people to contribute—you’re getting some garbage. Some of this garbage is sent by spam bots.

Spam bots post content that detracts from your website. Spam lowers your site’s perceived quality. Spam posts may include links that pull traffic to competing sites or trick your visitors into a scam. The cost of spam is hard to quantify.

Plenty of experts recommend methods to avoid spam. But in a series of user research studies, I observed that anti-spam measures impose a cost of their own. They can add friction that causes visitor abandonment and attrition. The cost of this is easier to quantify.

Some anti-spam measures impose more pain than others. I decided to assess and compare them. Continue reading “Reduce spam without hindering usability”

The ease of user research goes in cycles

The tools of user research have evolved substantially over the past three decades, and need to evolve more.

Here’s a history from last century through today, based on my experience.

User researchers have had to learn to test

  • computer software using expensive usability labs,
  • desktop software by using other desktop computers,
  • smartphone apps by using apps,
  • household appliances and outdoor digital experiences the hard way.

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Divergent thinking and collaboration

Divergent thinking—thinking in an unusual and unstereotyped way—*is what’s needed in software design. Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity—it’s an essential part of creativity. It is the ability to see:

  • lots of possible ways to interpret a question
  • lots and lots of possible answers to a question.

User-experience designers engage in divergent thinking when they explore multiple ideas and try to “saturate the problem space.” But your entire development team can benefit from this—and save your project months of rework.

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