The word usability is almost a buzzword, used for naming many things, and as such, it doesn’t even have a clear meaning for many people.
But we found a way to narrow it down to the most important: that it’s not enough to have a product that can solve the problem at hand (what we call utility), but we also have to think about who’s going to use it, where and how (this is usability).
What should I do to improve usability or what should I ask for when outsourcing a software project in regards to usability?
If you are interested in doubling sales, doubling the number of leads or conversions, or doubling whatever other key performance indicator (Key Performance Indicator) underlying your software design project, keep reading, we are willing to help you by sharing our best practices.
Usability Overview: Key concepts
Usability is defined by Nielsen Norman Group, as a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.Nielsen norman group
The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process, when considering a user-centered design process.
Usability is defined by 5 quality components, covering whether the system is easy to learn, efficient to use, pleasant, and so forth:
💻 Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
⏱ Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
📝Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
✖ Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
😊 Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?
It’s quite clear with the above explanation that usability involves a great deal more than ease of use.
Usability vs. User Experience (UX)
Let’s do a little bit of spoiler: Usability is not the same as UX, it falls under the umbrella of UX.
Both, utility and usability, are usually called levels or components of User Experience design , as defined by the Nielsen Norman Group, an authority in the UX field.
It means that those components are very important, but total user experience is an even broader concept.
Think of it as some sort of Maslow’s hierarchy but for products. Usability comes right after utility, which makes sense, as firstly you have to determine that your item or solution can solve users’ problems and then you must address its usability.
There are two other levels, desirability and brand experience, but let’s focus on usability and how crucial it is for a product to succeed.
This might sounds like a lot, but it can be summed up with a very simple example:
If our product were a hammer, the utility is the head and the usability would be the handle. Who would use a hammer without a handle? No one!
When to work on usability
For better or for worse, software is much more complex than a hammer, we should all agree.
Following the analogy, it’s already quite challenging to get the head of our hammer right, and that leaves us with very little time and resources left to do the rest.
But, as said, both utility and usability are equally important, so you need to ensure you address usability as soon as possible to avoid running out of time or resources or being too late to make the needed changes to make your solution useful.
The trick is to build everything at once, as one piece, and do it all together. If we do it this way, we’re not going to be left with pieces that don’t fit or are half done.
So, in addition to improving the final product, this way of working is the most optimal way to use our clients’ time and resources and reduce time-to-market, which affects costs and competitiveness.
How do we do it?
From day one, we team up with all parties: design, development, QA, devops, and the customer and end users as well.
We can’t stress enough how crucial it is to have feedback from users and clients right from the beginning.
Then the inception process begins.
When seeking to improve the experience of users it is easy to stop at the superficial.
So, in order to avoid this we analyze the problem considering all aspects, without taking anything for granted, to find those things that are not obvious at first glance, but end up making the difference and leading to the solution’s success.
As designers, our role in the inception process is related to UX Discovery
It can take many forms, but it always revolves around these central aspects:
Benchmarking: Investigate competitors
We take a close look at the state of the market, finding both direct and indirect competitors and analyzing their products in detail until we have a profound understanding of how they function, and more importantly, what works and what doesn’t work with their solutions.
This type of analysis is usually known as benchmarking, but we add a twist to it, by focusing on the user experience, and by not being afraid to break away from the script to go the extra mile.
Benchmarking can give us massive advantages:
- We can get a clearer idea of what the users expectations are.
- Learn from our competitors’ mistakes to avoid falling into the same traps.
- Find unsatisfied needs and niches that can be targeted by our solution.
Learning from users and experts
The difference between mediocre and exceptional products lies in understanding the user.
That’s why we advise investing as much effort as possible in doing so, and one of the most simple but effective methods is face to face communication.
We interview people from different backgrounds: existing or potential users, industry experts and decision makers in the target market.
Their points of view give us crucial and enriched information (both explicit and implicit) about what are people’s frustrations and where to focus our efforts when developing our product.
By following the most strict standards, we always keep our interviews and studies absolutely confidential, for the safety of both our clients and interviewees. This also allows the interviewees to speak freely and honestly.
Conducting Heuristic Analysis
Regarded as a universal practice in the UX world, a heuristic analysis is, in simple terms, a standardized test conducted on a product to see if it fulfills certain quality standards (heuristics).
It is performed by professional designers, which thoughtfully list any obstacle to the user experience, big or small, followed by how to fix them.
Needless to say, it’s one of the most effective tools in our arsenal.
How we approach this analysis can vary depending on the product: if we are working on an existing product, we’ll focus our efforts in reviewing its current state to easily identify what should be improved and what we should keep or emphasize.
When building a product from scratch, we also perform this analysis, but to competing or similar products. Doing so, we gain a very detailed understanding on which are the weaknesses of our competitors and how to make a better product ourselves.
Based on the project briefing, early concepts explored by our team and the client, and our own research, we start working on wireframes and prototypes, the backbone of our design solution.
These tools are an industry standard and allow us to quickly create prototypes that are as close as possible to the final product, in both visuals and interactivity.
While prototyping, some crucial decisions are made which will affect the overall course of the project.
That’s one of the reasons for not deferring user testing and/or trying to understand the user from the beginning, as uncovering usability problems as early as possible while reduce major rearchitecting.
For example, the structure of the product starts to take shape in this stage, supported by information architecture principles and user feedback.
This defines how users understand and interact with the product on a basic level, but also influences wildly different aspects like performance or retention.
Testing prototypes with real users
Once we prototype the most critical user flows, we test them with potential users.
Why usability testing?
This testing phase lets us know how users behave in a realistic environment: we identify what works and what doesn’t, we find pain points to fix, and more importantly, we connect with users on an emotional level.
Knowing how users think and feel about our product makes all the difference.
Iterating: the virtuous cycle
Finally, what matters the most: iteration.
Based on our research and feedback, we improve our prototypes, which in turn are tested and refined again in a virtuous cycle of improvement.
A successful product doesn’t lie in supposedly perfect methods or flawless execution, which are only perfect at guaranteeing disaster: success lies in iteration instead.
Redesigning user interfaces on the basis of user testing can substantially improve usability.
As per Nielsen Norman Group, in four case studies, the median improvement in overall usability was 165% from the first to the last iteration, and the median improvement per iteration was 38%.
That’s why we use Agile methodologies, mainly Scrum, which are even more powerful with our help: the tools we use as designers are specifically made to make iteration faster and cheaper.
During the inception process we find insights: user problems and frustrations that are not visible to the naked eye, but that give our product a tremendous advantage when taking them into account.
Then, we begin the actual development with a head start: we have better ideas and a much clearer notion of what to do.
The impact this has on the speed and quality of development surpasses that initial investment by a wide margin.
But we don’t stop there.
Researching and testing our ideas accompanies the entire life cycle of the project. This is the only way to ensure a high-quality user experience and the best software solution to fit users’ needs as they expect.
Following this process is something we always insist on as a team and with our clients to ensure we can deliver increased brand satisfaction and a better bottom line to the business you are working for.
It’s very tempting to think that some of these things are expendable, or that they might save time and money, and being software as complex as it is, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important thing: a hammer without a handle is not a hammer, it’s just a piece of scrap. And no one would want to use it.
We, at Switch, are very happy with solving problems in this way, and we believe the results on clients’ performance prove it.
Why should you matter about usability
Are you yet wondering why usability is so important and how you could benefit from an optimal one?
As digital environment becomes increasingly complex, user experience and web usability have become two of the most important aspects of ensuring the success of a digital product, website or app.
One thing is clear: customers today simply expect good usability and it is a never-ending commitment to constant improvement.
Undoubtedly good usability can become a decisive market advantage.
Simplicity and usability make users trust your product and enjoy the experience, increasing the likelihood of:
💵 Making a purchase decision and coming back to you in the future, which benefits conversion optimization.
🗣 Promoting or recommending your product, which means much more opportunities to generate new customers already at the bottom of your funnel.
In a nutshell, usability impacts your business growth and the overall health of the brand or business, so for sure usability should matter to you.
If you have an idea for a digital product that you know will satisfy the user’s needs, let’s work together to avoid the idea being doomed to fail due to usability issues.
We are a Clutch leader in software development and we would love to embrace your software development challenges as your tech partner.
Drop us a line to explore how to help you.