Usability and retail are two words that far too rarely end up in the same sentence. Don’t get me wrong, there are other, initially more important considerations for a business system. Does it meet business and functional requirements? Is is maintainable and cost-effective? But given the business requirements can met in a cost-effective manner, usability does indeed matter.
A usable system improves productivity, facilitates access to information and is the key to realizing the true potential of the software system. Software won’t help your organization unless it is used and it won’t be used unless it is easy to. Yet few software vendors care to discuss the methodology and thought-process behind the usability of their products. Some vendors don’t actively study usability themselves, instead relegating the task to software developers or graphic artists. That’s where I’ll start. Software developers are perhaps the last group on earth you should turn to for usability. The vast majority of software developers are much more interested in building complex back-end systems and technical libraries. The user-interface is often considered a trivial uninteresting by-product. I am not disparaging software developers, in fact I am surrounded by them everyday, many of them good friends. Graphic artists are sometimes assumed to be user-interface experts. While some are, this is a (dangerous) misconception. Making something attractive visually has very little to do with making it function well. So who should? A product manager, an end-user, somebody who knows the product, knows the requirements and is interested in usability as an end goal. Thankfully, usability is a field that is researched and studied scientifically. Some usability experts like Jakob Nielsen have published a great deal of information on usability, best practices, patterns and anti-patterns. A usable site is often one where the user knows instinctively what to do. This presupposes conforming to the many usability expectations all of us have, even if we can’t formulate them. Making a site meet complex specifications, be usable and look good is a tall order but definitely achievable with the right focus.
Of course I can’t stress the importance of usability without at the same time disclosing our own strategy and process. The Compliantia service was developed and is being continually improved using the following process:
1. Prototypes are built and critiqued.
We split teams so if Peter builds a particular screen, Diane will be asked to critique it. We don’t tell Diane how the screen works, we actually ask her to tell us. A good interface should be self-explanatory and self-documenting.
2. Listen to your users but more importantly, watch them!
Usability starts with “academic” best practices but it needs to be evaluated “in the field”. Engage your users, listen to them and most importantly, watch them. If you want to be humbled, watch your software being used by someone who has never used it before and who has no vested interest in its success. Don’t tell them very much. Just give it to them and watch them use it. Are they able to find what they need? Is the learning curve relatively short? Are they learning more about the system and increasing their productivity as they continue using the system?
3. Use your own software!
Using a system for a few minutes and using a system for a few hours, day in and day out, are very different propositions. If you don’t want to use your software for more than a few minutes, chances are your users won’t either. Usability improvements are sometimes not obvious, they take prolonged exposure to come out. We use our own software so we can continually refine it.