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    The Importance of Usability in Software Design

    Understanding the importance of usability in software design is critical, whether you are a software developer trying to deliver a functional product, or an organization looking to define the requirements for your next procurement. By engaging a few key usability heuristics during your design and development stages, you can ensure your software is efficient, effective, engaging, error tolerant, and easy to learn. 

    Usability Testing Sessions

    Usability typically focuses on specific tasks or scenarios being completed by specific users. Ultimately, usability wants to know whether goals can be achieved effectively. The best way to assess the successes and failures of your software is with a usability testing session.

    Though many methodologies and strategies exist, a usability testing session generally involves a researcher asking users to perform tasks. As the users complete these tasks, the researchers observe and evaluate their behavior.

    Researchers should never guide or influence users. It is critical that users understand they aren’t being tested, the software interfaces are. For this reason, usability experts agree that the term ‘user testing’ should never be used in this context. 

    Key Usability Metrics 

    Researchers are charged with uncovering problems, discovering opportunities for improvement, but also learning about users. By understanding user behavior and preferences, UX design can make the leap from good to great.

    Several heuristics can help researchers to develop testing strategies that focus on important usability metrics.

    Task success

    Is it enough if your users can complete a given task? This pass/fail mentality may seem tempting when trying to measure success, but it is important to discuss what else may be important. Consider whether your users know instinctively which actions to take, how long each task takes, and whether there are frustrations that need your attention. 

    Number of errors

    We have all clicked on the wrong link or chosen the incorrect menu item. Human beings make mistakes but removing an error-prone feature can be a quick-win improvement for your software. 

    Requests for help

    Sometimes requests for help aren’t mirrored in support tickets or calls to your support desk. Usability testing and user observation will help catch user uncertainty and restore confidence in your software. Listen for questions like, “I think I should click this, right?” 

    Number of user actions

    It used to be a common design strategy to implement a number of checks and balances that involve asking a user if they are certain before submitting information (as an example). Sometimes these confirmations are important, but often they are time consuming and require the user to execute additional, unnecessary steps. When users identify tasks with multiple obstacles, see if these journeys can be simplified. 

    Time spent on tasks

    Be sure to review the time it took each user to complete the requisite tasks. It’s natural for some users to work more quickly than others, but if there are significant discrepancies, it may indicate a need for changes. 

    Learnability

    The first time a user performs a task, it should be expected that it will take more time than subsequent attempts. By following the rule of three, see if users find tasks easier to understand and quicker to complete on their second and third trials. 

    Satisfaction

    Satisfaction is the one metric that should be reported by the users and not necessarily observed. Always ask users to rate how they feel after completing tasks, using a clear scale with terms like very unhappy, unhappy, neutral, happy, or very happy. 

    Also read: User Centered Design: Focusing Software Development on the Users

    Usability Testing Highlights Ongoing Areas for Improvement

    It’s a misconception that the only time for usability testing and review is when a new software solution is being developed and deployed. Ongoing usability testing can identify and highlight areas for improvement.

    I recommend conducting informal usability testing when onboarding new employees to your organization. As you train new hires, have an observer taking notes. What questions do new users ask? Are there areas that are consistently confusing for new users?

    Don’t just listen to the new users. Pay particular attention when your trainer starts making comments such as:

    • This may seem difficult at first.
    • I am not sure why we do it this way, but this is how the software makes us handle this task.
    • This never works properly [the first time].
    • I wish we could just… 

    Interpreting Usability Results

    Having concrete research data can make it easier to create business cases for software design updates and requirements decisions. The problem with usability is that defining whether users are effective and efficient isn’t always straightforward or quantifiable.

    By completing a few tasks prior to executing a usability test, you can make evaluating the results much less subjective:

    • Clearly identify tasks being tested and define specific, repeatable, goals.
    • Choose the metrics and key performance indicators your results will be evaluated against.
    • Evaluate all users using the same methods and criteria.

    Ensure that emotion never plays a role in usability testing. If you decide ahead of time that you require 3 out 4 users to complete a task in a set period of time, don’t later give latitude to users with sweeter personalities or physical disabilities. It is fine to note these characteristics in your research notes, and these items may lead to secondary testing based on commonalities of user experiences, but they should not distract from the core tasks and goals. 

    Why Usability Design is Important

    Good usability is a core design principle that can help determine the success of your software application. Poor usability can reduce productivity. Flawed interface design can make it difficult for users to perform tasks correctly and with confidence.

    By focusing on users and their needs, your organization will benefit from increased engagement. Whether internal or external, sales or service focused, increased efficiency will always provide a return on your investment.

    Read next: Security-First UX: Experiencing The Digital World Safely

    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie is an experienced software developer, writer, business analyst, and usability design expert. With over 24 years in these roles, Jillian has enjoyed applying her considerable skill-set to assist clients and users across a wide variety of sectors including: legal, health, and financial services. Combining these professional opportunities with a love of technology, Jillian is pleased to act as a trusted advisor, contribute articles, voice opinions, and offer advice to numerous organizations, news outlets, websites, and publications.

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