Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Designing for the user: Will it work?

Good product design incorporates (among other things) three fundamental elements: Utility, Desirability, and Usability. These three elements don't lend themselves to neatly symmetrical graphical representations, though, because usability is by far the most critical of the three.

Think of it this way: no matter how useful an idealized product would seem to be, no matter how desirable the idealized outcome of using the product is to you...if you can't make it work for you, then the product experience risks failure due to usability issues. 

Usability issues are why help desks and user guides exist. An entire series of 'For Dummies' books has been published to address what are, in essence, usability issues. Taken to an extreme, one could even argue that the entire education system is an attempt to make the world more usable for each generation that will inherit it and to share usability improvements made in prior generations.  Or maybe that's too far.

So let's step back, way back, to design of interactive media. Information products, like web sites and applications, certainly need to be useful, desirable and usable. And if usability is the key to unlocking the doors of utility and desirablility online, how does one evaluate the usability of design online?

We certainly prefer to conduct detailed task analysis, interaction design, hi- and lo-fidelity prototyping and formal usability tests, but the reality of the world demands alternatives. One alternative we've used to great effect is to employ a Heuristic Evaluation Checklist.  

The checklist provides a means of quickly evaluating a designs usability by inspecting it against a set of standard questions. It requires no particular expertise to employ, only a willingness to employ structured observation and critical thinking. It can be done formally--with data--or informally via discussion. Either way, it beats the alternative: failure.

Here's four elements on a checklist we use:

1. Is the design efficient?
  • Is it faster than the old way?
  • Does it support power users and novices?
  • Does it support the way users perform their task?
  • Are response times fast enough to keep up with user's work rate?
2. Is it intuitive?
  • Does interaction take advantage of user's mental models?
  • Does it behave consistently throughout the task?
  • Is it visually consistent?
3. Is it supportive?
  • Is it easy to undo mistakes?
  • Does the design provide advice/reference materials/tools?
  • Will users be able to perform their work better than they otherwsie would?
4. Is it engaging?
  • Can users focus on their work instead of the interface?
  • Do users have control...and beleive they have control?
  • Is the experience enjoyable or even...fun?
What's in your checklist?

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