Taking a cue from Lorelle’s article – Usability Isn’t Expensive. It’s Practical. Usability is Useful, this is an effort to extend it to all softwares – web and desktop both.
Usability is about thinking for user of the software.
Lets categorize softwares in two different types: Functionality driven and Content driven. This means that value of the software lies in availability of some functionality or content. Operating systems, audio players, word processors are all examples of functionality driven softwares. Whereas blogging tools like WordPress, Help applications, ERPs or those weather docklets are examples of content driven softwares.
Identify the users
The users who will use your software will also decide its value. That is why it is important to identify them. Most of the times identifying what to provide goes hand-in-hand with who will use it. This involves identifying the users’ profiles – their knowledge, background, education, skillset, language (literal language as well as terminologies). Creating Personas is a very effedtive way of achieving this. They help in looking at the users’ needs from all perspectives and consider all the aspects.
Never forget to consider the administrators too as users of the software. They usually do more complex activities than the end user and gain a lot from the software.
User Interface Design
User Interface Design involves two things – Information Architecture and User Interaction Design. While Information Architecture term is typically used in relation to Web, its applicability or association is also seen in non-Web software applications.
Information Architecture is about understanding the user’s perspective. The information (as core content, or related to the functionality) you provide should be something that the user understands. Only then will the software be useful to him. What Makes An Effective Interface discusses some of the issues of interface design. Information Architecture discipline includes a lot more, but for our purpose lets look at content identification, content prioritization and content classification.
Content Identification is to identify what is to be shown to the user. You can have lot of information with you, but you should provide only that is useful to the user. More information can not only lead to confusion, but also lesser productivity. Therefore it is critical to identify all the content that the user needs, a mistake here can lead to either less or more information – both can be harmful. Read Business Interface for more. This is useful even in functionality driven softwares, e.g., in the audio player you see lot of information about the song you are playing, the duration, the quality. This is all information for you, the user.
Content Prioritization can help in identifying the primary and secondary content, and the relationship between them. The relationship between primary and secondary content can vary, e.g., sometimes users might want to see summary of certain transactions that have been carried out lot more times than the detailed transactions – in this case the summary should be more easily accessible to the user than the detailed transactions. More easily accessible completely depends on the content and your interface design – it can either mean on the homepage or in the sidebar. This sets order of elements of your user interface design.
Content Classification is the activity that controls access to the content. The categories in WordPress are a way of content classification. Depending on the users this can vary from just categories to multiple types of classification for multiple users. Typically, classification for administrators is different from the end users, because they need to access much more information and have a greater control. Sometimes the administrators know more about the entire system, so their terminologies can also be different. Card Sorting is a popular way of designing the content and classifying it. The content classificaton will lead to the navigation system in your application. Its is ironical that in spite of doing your best to give a navigation system to the user, a comprehensive search should also be provided. Typically, navigation is structured path to a content, whereas search is direct.
Usability is about users, so their feedback contributes immensely in the future iterations on the software. Like Lorelle has pointed out, usability testing is a must to be bring out the best. The usability testing is typically done by users, if not the real ones, by the ones who represent them.
This is just an abstract, practically there are many more things to do for usability. There are hundreds of thousands of tips for usable designs. Following links might be useful:
- Usability 101: Fundamentals and Definition
- Human Computer Interaction
- Software Usability Research Lab
- US Department of Health and Human Services: Usability
- Usability Professionals’ Association
- Usability News
- Usability Views
- Human Computer Interaction Resources Network
- Planet HCI
- About Web Standards And Their Benefits
Some blog usability related links:
- Top Ten Design Mistakes in Blog Design
- Blog Usability Guidelines
- Agile Testing: Jakob Nielsen on Blog Usability
Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda