In a user experience design (UXD) process, ease of usability is crucial for your product to succeed. The problem is, sometimes you are so deeply involved in your design that it seems simple to you, and you wonder how users could possibly struggle with it. Chances are, even if you can’t see them yourself, there might be a few serious usability issues that could act as real barriers and stop people from loving what you have produced. ‘Maybe so’, you say, ‘but how do I get started in finding and fixing the issues, and won’t it be horribly difficult and expensive?’

Help is at hand! Actually, the earlier you are in the project the better — even if it’s just a scribble on a whiteboard. And if you have nearly finished the concept then there are still plenty of options to give the project the polish it needs to make it stand out with a better design.

Here are 3 ways you can ensure your product is a joy to use…

1) Concept Review and Feedback: the usability health check

  • Prioritize your feature set – In almost every case you will find that you can cut down on the number of features quite significantly while still providing the essentials for your users. Don’t spend your time coding and testing features that won’t get used!
  • Keep it concise – Narrow down the scope, and make sure you aren’t incorporating unnecessary steps. Understand the user goals and make it easy for the users to accomplish them. Make sure you have a solid, high-level concept for the user experience.

NOTE: if budget allows, invest in one or two short sessions with a user experience designer or a usability expert – this could be one of the most valuable investments you can make. A good consultant will help you plan the design process and will work with you to create a tighter strategy and provide an expert review and feedback on potential issues.

2) Low Fidelity Prototyping: involve real users

In some cases, low fidelity prototypes work better for some types of feedback than fully functional prototypes because a quick session with an actual user and a deck of printed pages will bring you back to your main goals of the design and draw you away from building your own assumptions into the design. Lo-fi prototyping can be used when:

  • There are a few different options for implementing something and you aren’t sure which way to go
  • There are disagreements in the product team about which design direction will work better
  • You are designing something innovative and want to road test your early design concepts

NOTE: at this stage, the visual design does not matter. Don’t worry about the actual representation of the final product or design, the important thing is to keep it basic because your main goal should be to test the user experience with real people who are likely to use the system in their own lives. A paper prototype could be the perfect method for testing at this stage

3) Iterative Design and Testing: gather rapid feedback from start to finish

Identify a problem; make a design update to fix the problem; test the fixes; and repeat. This approach involves finding obvious issues and fixing them. In each progressive test you find fewer and fewer problems until you’re left with a more solid product from a usability point of view.

  • Stay away from opinion-based design – Remember not to rely on opinions or be too heavily influenced by individual users or else your end result will be sorely biased. There is a very delicate balance between making changes rapidly to improve the design and making changes rapidly to satisfy one user.
  • Don’t be afraid of making change, just be critical of the changes – Because this process is rapid, you may find that in the first few test cycles you’re making lots and lots of changes. In later cycles the design settles down, changes become smaller, and the overall confidence grows that the design has been optimized.
  • Remember that testing should occur at various stages of the project – In the early stages you will be optimizing the task flow and high level user interaction, then in later stages you’ll be working on the visual design, copy and messaging. Things like visual design and messaging actually work very closely with the interaction design because it’s ultimately how your end user will interact with and remember your application. Think of each stage of the process as having a layered effect on the final design and overall user experience so make sure you test, test, test. (Don’t wait until visual design phase to test because you might get caught up in fixing the visuals rather than getting at the root of the problem, which is most likely going to be a usability issue.)

It takes practice to know when a change is warranted, but getting in the habit of iterative testing and design is good because you finish with an updated design that has been tested and shown to work, rather than a list of problems and recommendations that you have to go away to wrestle with and figure out.

NOTE: use tools that are easy to make changes with. The last thing you want is a cumbersome wireframe document where it is difficult to make those quick updates to test with.

After you have worked out the kinks and determined that your interactions are sound, you may decide that you want to go through a more rigorous approach to testing by conducting a formal validation test. This often occurs in a usability lab with video cameras and one-way mirrors. Make sure that you’re not using this method as a way to find usability issues because it’s time consuming and costly. Formal validation testing should only occur when major usability issues have already been identified and corrected. Correct use of formal validation testing is to demonstrate that you already have a usable product, and to catch any minor issues in order to give it that final polish.

If you are designing a product and you want it to succeed, improving the user experience is one of the most effective investments of time and effort that you can make. Time and resources invested in prototyping and testing repays itself over and over again. If you are on a really tight budget and want to save money, the best way to do it is to include quick usability testing as early as you possibly can — a tiny investment in the early days will be much more effective than a large investment later on.

This article was co-written with Melanie Walls, Human Factors at Work. For more information about usability testing visit: www.human-factors-at-work.com Got questions about user experience design? Contact us at Pivot to see how we can help you with an Expert Review.

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