The following is a guest post by Dominique Schmidt, UX consultant at Apliki. Enjoy the read.
Through our work as a Psychological IT-Consultancy for User Experience (UX) we are often confronted with the request to make sure the clients’ product “achieves overall usability”. Through further exploration of the expectations behind this assignment we usually come to the conclusion that people expect a checklist-like tool, to ensure they meet usability standards. Of course this somehow reflects the guidelines approach of the DIN EN ISO 9241-11 and a number of checklists aiming to give non UX professionals the opportunity to quickly enhance the usability of their product. Small measures can often change a lot for the better. Yet, this approach falls somewhat short of what real usability means. There is not one kind of usability. On the contrary, usability is highly dependent on the context of use of a product (DIN EN ISO 9241-11). Before we explore this notion further, let’s have a look at where this understanding of usability originates from.
What is in usability checklists?
The task of matching human behavior with machines is indeed a difficult one. For decades this question had been pretty much ignored and it is only in the relatively recent times of software development that the immense importance of this has gained widespread support. As a rule of thumb, one could say that the more potential mistakes there are for one topic, the easier it is to spot at least the most prominent ones. This also holds true for software usability. By following simple rules you can avoid the most common mistakes. This can be by avoiding certain UI elements that have proved to not work very well or by placing information in a structured format. These kinds of tips and tricks are especially well known because they can provide the answers to questions such as: “Does this work?” In addition, there are well known lists of usability heuristics (one of which is promoted by Jakob Nielsen). They provide more general guidelines to ensure “learnability” – defined as how easy it is for users to accomplish easy tasks on their first encounter with a design. The critical point is that these so-called heuristics do not work in a vacuum, but rather are dependent on the context of your software for valid application (remember the DIN EN ISO 9241-11). This leads us to the shortcoming of all- too simple usability rules.
What are you going to miss with usability checklists?
Software does not stand alone. It is built to fulfill a special set of tasks. These are to be done by a group of target users, bringing with them their very own skills, technology orientation, expectations and – not to forget – apprehensions. It does not end here. The product’s use will take place in situations loaded with influencing factors such as distracting noises, high stress-levels, shared office spaces or varying display sizes, to just name a few. All this (and more) is summed up in the context of use and without exaggeration it has to be named the central concept of user friendly software. It is only under the consideration of these factors, that the most important questions of true usability can be properly answered. To reframe the above question: “Does our product enable our target users in the specific situation of use to fulfill their tasks?”
How to get there?
The key to success in defining your specific usability goals lies in two factors: research and documentation. Asking the right questions and pulling together the best data available helps you gain a valid understanding of your users and their environment. This understanding is then put into artifacts such as personas, goal descriptions, scenarios and UI-prototypes ensuring the whole team shares a common understanding of the product’s focus. Using these documents as a basis for every decision and conducting user tests of your prototypes will make sure you achieve optimal usability.
Dominique Schmidt is a UX consultant at Apliki, giving workshops on the user- centered-design process and accompanying the development of software products. He writes about the psychology of usability engineering and UX design on the Apliki blog at http://www.apliki.de/uid/blog
Feel free to contact him in English or German at firstname.lastname@example.org