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Usability – It’s all about the users!

Author: Melissa McElroy Posted In: User Experience

In this blog series we will be discussing Usability and User Experience, what they are, what they are not and why they are so important. Usability and UX are not just for externally facing customer sites, it is important to apply these concepts to your internal sites and applications as well, employees are users too! After we have a good understanding of the terms, we will continue on to look at these topics in respect to SharePoint mobile interfaces. Let’s start with understanding usability.

Usability – Is ensuring that the user can complete the desired task. Simple, right? It seems simple enough, but far too often interfaces are confusing! Information is not organized in a manner that meets the user’s expectations or mental model (how we expect something to work based on prior knowledge), information is hard to find, and feedback provided by the interface like error messages and prompts are not useful or intuitive. If a user is having difficulty getting signed up for a service, they may go elsewhere because it is just too difficult. Users have enough going on in their lives, the systems they use should simplify tasks, not make them harder.

I had an issue on a site the other day and I won’t divulge what site I was on, but I will say it’s a well-known business journal and a subscription is needed to view their digital media. I entered in all of my information, clicked next, entered my payment information, and clicked Submit. I received….

Error – This email address already exists.

Ok…..so did you just charge my credit card? Can I login? I’m confused….so I go to login. The site tells me that my account is not activated and that I need to confirm my email address via a link they’ve sent…but you said it already exists and now it’s not setup? I’m even more confused. Needless to say, I never signed up for the subscription and got my information elsewhere and the company… well they lost out on a sale. So, let’s talk about how this can be avoided….

What a user “Can Do”
Usability is all about what a user can do with an interface. Not, can they click on the logo to go home or a link to read an article, all of that is functionality, usability is can they complete the tasks that they expect to be able to accomplish. Can they find what they’re looking for in the navigation bar(s) and search? Can they easily find information when looking at a product page? When populating information, is it clear what fields are required and what information and in what format it should be entered?

If a user cannot find something, then to them, it doesn’t exist!

Put simply, users should not need training to interact with the interfaces. That is not to say that a user doesn’t need training to understand a business process, like how to do month end for accounts payable. When a process is understood, the interface that is utilized to complete or retrieve information about that process should be intuitive for simple tasks and provide cues to guide the user for more complicated tasks. Have you ever been trained on how to use Bing? Or an online banking site or app? Probably not, and I bet that you use these products often, multiple times a week even and can successfully accomplish your tasks.

When a user interacts with an interface they should be able to remember how to complete the process. Users should not be expected to have a manual in front of them to use an application. Helping users remember can be accomplished with information chunking, implementing functionality that follows the user’s mental model, and using best practices and standards that are put in place such as common icons and colors. And just in case they can’t remember, there should be on screen help or the ability to search for help information.


The handles imply pull to open, the mental model of how the door should function was not followed, so cues had to be added.

Interfaces should allow users to complete their tasks in a timely manner, understanding that some processes just take longer, but are there ways the process can be better? As important as optimization is, there is another factor related to efficiency and that is how many errors the user encounters in the application. I am not just talking about bugs in the code, where an error is handled. I am referring to being able to clearly understand what is being asked of them so they have less errors when populating information, being able to click on the right link because they are properly spaced, and being able to select the right information because the labels make sense.


The value? Which value do I need to correct? The necessary information is not provided for the user to easily correct the error.

Design for your Audience
Always keep in mind who is going to use the application when designing. A children’s website will be designed very differently from a college information database based on the knowledge of the user as well as the intent of the site. Keep in mind what is important to your audience on the page, their level of expertise on the topic, and the mode and environment in which they will be accessing the information. Creating personas before doing design work is one way to ensure that the users are kept in mind throughout design.

The Benefits
In addition to having satisfied users and customers, usability can save and make you money. Money can be saved by making processes more efficient, eliminating unnecessary work, and decreasing training costs. Revenue can be increased by re-designing to reduce drop-off rates and increase conversion rates. Checkout Human Factor’s ROI calculators to better understand how your bottom line can be improved with usability.

So…How do we accomplish this?
First, talk to the users. The users are the ones that hold the knowledge on how to make an application successful and we can learn a lot from them through interviews, focus groups, surveys, and other analysis techniques. After we learn from the users, put together user personas and use cases, generate the design, test with the users and optimize as necessary, develop, test, and optimize some more. When the users test an application, there will be items that come up that were not thought of during design. It’s ok, that’s why we test and optimize in an iterative fashion.

Now that we know a little bit about the important factors in how to ensure the user CAN use the application, in my next blog post we will talk about the user experience and what the user WILL do in an application.

Question and comments can be addressed directly to:

Melissa McElroy
e. melissa.mcelroy@spr.com
LinkedIn http://linkedin.com/in/melissamcelroy