Putting Users First
In Part 2, Todd Davis, Vice President of IT, UniMed Direct, discussed the importance of understanding your customer’s needs when planning the software. Here in Part 3, Todd talks about usability and how it can mean the difference between getting it right the first time and releasing software that falls short of its intended goals.
To create optimum software usability, developers must put users at the forefront of the design process. In the last article, I talked about understanding your customers and how they work. In this step, you’ll need to use that knowledge to guide how you build the software.
Why do we emphasize and test usability? A major reason is to reduce support costs. Supporting software is expensive, and charging users for support creates dissatisfaction. Designing software to be intuitive and easy to use helps keep support costs down. Another reason to focus on usability is to reduce training time. Optimum usability allows fast ramp-up, getting people productive within a shorter time frame.
How Easy Does it Need to Be?
People often confuse usability with utility. Many software packages come with a plethora of features and functionalities – they are “high” on the utility scale. If designed with usability in mind, they can also be easy to use.
It is challenging to find the right balance between ease-of-use and high utility. If you make the user interface too simple, users may not know about the powerful features inside the software. On the other hand, if you put too many features up front, with hundreds of options for users to choose from, you may overwhelm them, and they may be resistant to the change or even reject the software.
In a large-scale example, Microsoft Office products were notoriously difficult to learn and use in the early nineties. The applications were replete with unprecedented features, both in number and sophistication. But usability was questionable, requiring users to memorize unique keyboard combinations to perform even simple functions. Microsoft was able to overcome these problems and win its leadership role despite these problems. Most developers, however, must achieve successful usability upon first release.
Like it? Love it?
How much do your users like your software? Do they love it? Are you prepared for people to hate it? Involving users in the design process allows you to get the answers you need before you go to market. You can tweak or redesign things before releasing the software. Many people are attracted to flashy interfaces, but a clunky process will turn them away. The most important question you need to answer is “how much are people using my software?”
How Do We Get There?
People go through three phases when it comes to using software: discovery, learning and efficiency. In the discovery phase, people figure out how to perform tasks in the software. Next, they learn to combine actions and get results. Finally, in the efficiency phase, users master the software for their work flow.
Software usability is about getting people from discovery to efficiency as quickly as possible. Usability testing, during all phases of development, focusses on measuring how long it takes someone to achieve each level of proficiency. This testing can be as simple as asking for feedback from specific users about their experience using new features. You’re looking to learn their perceptions of difficulty, get their suggestions, and brainstorm easier ways of doing things.
In Part 4, I’ll talk about use cases. Use cases go hand-in-hand with usability and help you understand how people will use your software. Including use cases as a key part of usability testing will help ensure your testing is as realistic and effective as possible.