Usability testing originated in the 80’s when computer companies like Intuit and Xerox started to take an interest in human-computer interaction. They would record people (“users”) interacting with their products and take notes on their emotions, how much the were able to recall, how many mistakes they made, etc. Afterwards, developers would hurriedly make changes to the user interface before the next tester had their turn. This formed the basis for usability as we know it today, including usability with regards to website design.
Only thorough testing can determine whether a website has maximized its potential as a usable design. The remote testing services that are cropping up streamline the process so that it is more affordable to do the testing. To bring users in for a local test can cost thousands of dollars, depending how many testers you include.
But how do you know when a design is usable without testing? Is a good-looking design automatically a usable design?
There is no simple answer to that question, but many sites that are eye-catching are not usable. There are, however, some guidelines you can follow that will go a long way to prevent confusion. They should be implemented in the planning stages:
- Grid systems like 960.gs to help structure your website with proper spacing.
- Map out the elements on your site using ‘wireframe’ or ‘graybox’ layouts.
- Draw up flow charts documenting the user processes (i.e. registration, login, upload a new video).
These techniques have been around for longer than websites. They stuck because they are proven techniques. Not to mention, planning ahead generally improves your design aesthetically.
Have you taken every preventative measure? Followed all the guidelines to ensure that your site is usable? There still may be room for improvement. Despite widespread belief, usability should be included in the planning and pre-design process that ensues. This will save money, time, and severe headaches.
As we’ve already discussed, there are two types of usability testing: local and remote. In some cases we still conduct local user testing, but it is becoming less common. Local testing is like what the computer companies were first doing back in the 80s. Test and adjust one user at a time. If you are on a budget and looking for a simple yet effective usability test, get your friends and relatives to do the testing for you.
Remote testing, on the other hand, is a new innovation that allows web designers to analyze their designs with regard to usability for large groups at a fraction of the cost of local testing. Some sites have feedback buttons that allow users to volunteer their take on the website, and there are other sites that let us post a project and have selected testers analyze it. They give us qualitative feedback, which can be very useful because the suggestions are more actionable when they are written down with specifics.
Should we, as designers, be paying more attention to usability trends? The answer is a resounding Yes. Analyzing the user experience allows us to create sites that are more effective and that create a better (and quicker) return on a user’s visit. No matter how much reading we do, we will never fully comprehend our users, but with proper testing we are able to take a little peek into their complex minds and habits of our users. Therefore the User Experience can not be overrated, as we will always find new innovations in handling it and getting into those minds.