Usability On The Cheap and Easy

Writing code? That's the easy part. Getting your application in the hands of users, and creating applications that people actually want to use -- now that's the hard stuff.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

The best book I’ve used, long out of print, on usability testing is “A Practical Guide to Usability Testing” by Dumas and Redish. I used it to implement cheap-and-easy usability testing at a couple different companies. In my mind, it’s the gold standard.

Some things I’ve found useful in create more usable apps (if you can meet with your users):

  • Ask the user to draw a UI on a piece of paper (simple - spend a few minutes) and have them explain how they want to use the application; design the UI with the user instead of just presenting them with one to test.

  • Show the UI design to the user before it is connected to the back end; if you need too, hard code some sample data so they get the idea of what it might look like and how it would work. You will probably change part of the design at this point, and that’s a good thing.

from the UK’s Amazon review section:

I have to admit that I bought this book thinking on something quite different.
The title led me to think that this was a guide on how to recognize “by yourself” (no users, no usability tests, just heuristic evaluation -or, at least, also heuristic evaluation-) some common usability problems and I also believed that it was going to provide a set of common, fast, effective and low-cost solutions to them. (Quite funny thing a misleading title for a usability book, anyway)

I soon realized that I was wrong, because it is only on usability tests with users. You won’t find any solution in this book, just a nice guide on how to recruit participants, prepare and run the tests.

Only the names of the guilty have been omitted!
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I saw this book at the bookstore, and it seemed interesting but the list price is $35 for a small book filled with lots of pictures and whitespace. Publishers really need to have a reality check about their pricing structure.

Read this article on CBC.

This would be an absolute NIGHTMARE if this program was widely used. I think companies would start putting stipulations in their user agreements that they would not support any customer who has this program on their computer.

We need to start developing better user interfaces for this reason. When there becomes a need for someone to build software that allows user to customize their own interfaces, it means we haven’t been doing a good enough job at developing our user interfaces so users wouldn’t feel the need to do this.

Could be adapted for this purpose, and put actual eyeball tracking in the realm of realistic for everyone?

“When there becomes a need for someone to build software that allows user to customize their own interfaces, it means we haven’t been doing a good enough job at developing our user interfaces so users wouldn’t feel the need to do this.”

I don’t agree with this. Many applications have many different types of users, and designing a single interface for all of them means cutting things that only work for some of the users. User customizable interfaces free the developer to provide all the functionality and let the user decide what works best for them. Firefox is a superb example of this, particularly with the popularity of Firefox extensions.

I think many users know better how they want to use an app than the developers do.

The product that my team is developing doesn’t have a UI in the sense that most people think of; it’s a C++ library, so its user interface gets called an API instead. Nonetheless, issues of usability apply quite strongly here, as well.

Are books like Rocket Surgery Made Easy useful for this sort of thing? Any good recommendations for books and references on how to make APIs more usable?

One thing I’d like to point out is that eyeball tracking is not necessarily a holy grail and it is certainly not the place to start. You can get excellent results from “lite” usability testing with equipment no more sophisticated than a computer running your app, a notepad and a pencil, and the developer(s) looking on as someone tries to use the product. I’ve done it that way any number of times and have watched developers be flattened, just stunned, by the usability issues this simple and inexpensive method uncovers.

One way I found to augment our usability testing is using to actually have live users record themselves using your site through a predefined set of tasks you give them. Its relatively cheap and helped us figure out a number of things we needed to change as we saw patterns emerge through several tests.

I don’t know.

Seems to me that a pure text interface is plenty. And as for error reporting, all you need is “core dumped”. If you don’t know how to bring up the core dump in a debugger to see exactly what went wrong, you shouldn’t be using a computer in the first place … :wink:

Shrink wrap is one thing but custom software another. You cannot expect software developers to be graphic designers. We rarely understand the use of good white space, font size, color schemas, and all of the stuff that goes into a good UI experience. But customers don’t want to pay for that. So the stakeholders and their entourage of project managers come back to the dev team mid-way and say “gee how come it doesn’t look cool like web site X?”

Sorry, don’t know why, but this reminded me of today’s Dilbert…

“$35 for a small book filled with lots of pictures and whitespace. Publishers really need to have a reality check about their pricing structure.”

This is an interesting attitude, namely that value of a book is measured by how many words are in it.

I second the recommendation of Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think”. It is the best usability book I’ve read. However, you have to accept a basic premise that usability issues will vary for each website/interface depending on the content and functionality. This requires testing with actual users. Krug’s book is not a checklist of things to do or not do; he just shows you how to do good testing at almost no cost.

I went to one of Steve Krug’s workshop’s years ago and it was kind of funny because people kept raising their hands and saying “I’ve got a button here and someone says it should be here, which place is best?” And Steve would just say “You should get some users together and test it to see which one performs best.” A lot of people left a little frustrated because he didn’t have simple answers - just a simple testing process.

The hardest thing I’ve found with usability testing is getting the willingness from stakeholders to build into the schedule time to test and then make improvements. Many times clients will balk at testing because they feel like you are the expert and you should know the best answer without testing. Certainly you learn things over time, but each project will have its own surprises.

Having attended a Krug seminar recently, we were able to run through a quick usability test and do some of the things he talks about in the new book.
It really is quite an eye opener. If you haven’t done usability testing at least once, you really need to. You’ll be suprised.

A few take away notes:

  1. Don’t record what people think and/or say. The opinions of the testee are irrelevant. They’re comments are irrelevant. It’s what they do that is what is relevant.
  2. You might think you have the best design, but you’d be surprised (really!) at what people do when confronted with your site. It will leave you scratching your head sometimes. Serious problems will be spotted almost instantly.
  3. Use testers that have not seen the site before. Doing testing with people from the company is useless because they have likely used the site once. Even that level of familiarity is too much. Pay someone a few dollars to come in for a hour (you can even use unpaid family members if it comes to it :p).

Krug’s first work is about web usability, but this book is geared to testing, because people don’t do it enough basically. It doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive and until you do it you won’t see it’s importance.

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For cheap user testing for those who dont have the time to go and talk to users, checkout . Krug recommends this site in his book and its easily worth $100 for some basic feedback on your site.

Give it a try.

For anyone in the Minnesota area, the team I worked with (myself included, as far as I know) will be doing a session on Informal User Testing at MinneWebCon ( where we will talk exactly about how important usability was to us on our touch screen directory application (hint: in a week we revamped the home screen about 5 times).

Since I started at this job as a student, I’ve become a huge proponent of usability and usability testing… glad to see I’m not the only one! It’s all thanks to my supervisor who really hammered home accessibility design and usability concerns whenever I worked on a project.

@Murray Macchio,

You obviously quoted an April Fools’ joke a few hours behind the schedule. It’s just not possible to alter a program behavior by changing pixels on the screen.

As for the article… “Do-It-Yourself” and “Made Easy” already put me off. Thanks but no thanks.

I understand the importance of usability testing. But if it only takes a book with 168 pages to explain to me how to do usability tests that are after all “Easy” and “I can do them myself” then it becomes obvious I don’t need the book. If it’s so easy and I can do it myself, the only reason we don’t do it is because we are either lazy or are having an hard time doing usability tests on tight schedule projects. Why buy a 168 page book to tell me something I already know?