Saturday, 10 December 2011

How to save money with usability

For a long time tools have been made with functionality in mind. You have a problem, you design features that solve the problem, you make a structural design and then finally you start developing. This is of course over simplified, but it has worked for many years.

The situation is that every time there is a problem, people tend to make a tool for it. So at some point you are going to have a lot of separate tools. We even got tools that solve problems caused by other tools we made in the past. So you got a tool, for a tool, for a tool, ….

This is really frustrating for non-technical people. These people are mostly the users of the tools that you have made. They need to learn how all of these tools work. They need to know that these tool exists. They need to know if this is the right tool for their current problem and so on ….

We are all humans with a limited amount of concentration. As an artist you do not want to spend your time on learning new tools or getting frustrated because you have no clue how it works. As an artist you want to spend your time on what you are good at. Making art! Tools should be designed to support that goal. Not demand to invest your concentration in frustration. We want to give the artist the creative freedom they deserve for showing their vision and translating this into something beautiful on our screen. I am not telling they have to be spoiled! There is always some learning acquired, but we do not want them to invest too much time in learning a new tool.

But why the focus on functionality? What about usability? Don’t get me wrong. I love functionality! Without functionality we can not have any tools. Without functionality we don’t have the foundation to support the user. Functionality will always be very important in the evolution of tools. But this is also true for usability and it is now time to spend more time on this aspect of tool development.

What do I mean by usability? For me a good example would be web design. You want the user to directly know how he has to navigate your site. Does the user visit your site because he wants to see your work? Does the user want to contact you because he has a question about a tool you made?

For every goal the user has, he should be able to visually or interactively see how to succeed in that goal. You want to guide the user with some design choices you implemented in order to help him achieve what he was aiming for. If the user does not see how he has to do it, he will not feel comfortable. There is even a chance that the user will think it is his fault that he can not do what he wanted to do. He will feel stupid and won’t want to use your tool again. I am quite sure nobody likes to feel stupid. And we as tool developers do not want to link this bad feeling to our tool.

A user should also be aware of what he can do. If functionality is hidden or bad visually translated into a UI then It will not be used or just forgotten. It is a shame that some good functionality will not be used due to some lack of usability or in this case visibility.

You want the user to feel comfortable and help him out with his goal. Otherwise you will lose a lot of time/money on trying to convince the user using your tools or teaching him again and again how to use it. The happiness of the user has a great influence on your own work and on the whole team. This is something we can not forget or ignore.

Usability is still a vague topic. There are no strict rules to follow, only tricks to try out. And if these design tricks do not work ,you have to find out a better solution. Trial and error. Feedback and observation. Iteration and failing.

This is just an introduction article. I am working on my personal theories every day, so I would love to hear your feedback. What you have read here are just my personal thoughts that need more evolution and reflection.

Before you stop reading I would like to ask you to leave a comment with how much time you invest in usability. How important it currently is in your development and if you would like to read more articles about usability. Some more in depth examples or ...

Thank you for taking time to read this.