Practical Usability Methods for The Busy Web Designer

I was once asked what my “dream team” for a web design team would be composed off and right off the bat I said I would really like a usability person on my team. There’s a reason why I said that’s a dream team because more often than not, web design teams don’t have a usability guy/girl to manage the interaction design, user experience, and ease of use of the web site.

Most of the time, it falls on the shoulders of the web designer to be that usability person because a) there’s no budget for a usability analyst/engineer b) there are no resources for a usability testing set-up. The common notion is that usability testing has to be done in a lab worthy of rocket science, so most busy web designers just forgo the whole thing all together.

I do believe that testing in a controlled and well-configured environment will yield the best results, but if there’s one thing I learned from my engineering education is that most of the time, you only need “good enough” analysis and data to make things happen. The revered usability guru Jakob Nielsen researched about these “good enough” usability methods and their effectiveness and his findings suggested that these methods, aptly termed “discount usability methods,” were not at par with the more elaborate usability testings, but they were good enough.

So, here are some practical and “good enough” usability methods designers may want to try out to improve his/her user interface designs:

  • Heuristic Evaluation – This is where the designer will find a handy, battle-tested set of guidelines and subject his/her design to it. (The Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines is an example of such guidelines). This is a very easy and cost-effective usability method and research has shown it has good utility. However, this method often loses sight of context and may be too broad.
  • User Research – More like market research, the designer can look for people who are the “primary target users” and ask them to try out the user interface. You may also ask your usability tester to “think out aloud” and observe his/her reactions to the key features of the design. This will be costlier in terms of time and effort, but puts into the fore the context of your design.
  • Prototyping – The most popular way of doing this is via Paper Mock-ups. With the user interface modeled into paper, the process is pretty flexible in terms of a design review (from your superiors) and as a feedback form from potential users.

While the abovementioned methods are not really “sexy” and looks rather primitive, all of them one key thing: feedback. Usability testing, both elaborate and simple, strive feedback from the users.

So, busy web designer, the moment you think usability is all about tricked-out labs and set-ups, remember that there are few practical usability methods out there that are “good enough”