10 High Impact Usability Improvements – Part 2

| April 26, 2012
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It’s a tragedy so many companies, large and small either do not invest in usability work or treat the effort as a paint job to be applied to a completed product.

Usability improvements don’t necessarily need to be time or labor intensive. Companies have been shown to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year annually from such low-effort changes as removing a button. We also know these potentially high effect improvements can result from the feedback of only five study participants.

This is Part II of of Adam Kochanowicz’s guest post on usability heuristics. See Part I here.

6. Fitts’ Law


Fitts’ law is an equation as a function of size and distance from targets.  Important targets such as “Join Now!” buttons should be larger and closer to other objects of proximate importance.

For web applications, you can use a trick of putting objects of the highest importance at the computer screen’s edge. Because mouse cursors stop at the edge, these elements basically have infinite width in terms of Fitts’ calculations.

To make a general assessment of Fitts’ law in your application, ask yourself:
• Do the size of my objects make sense in terms of their importance?
• Are navigation and action objects far enough apart to prevent errors?
• Are commonly used items grouped or closer together than less used, less relevant items?

It’s important, however, to not take Fitts’ law too far. Just because you want an item to be important doesn’t mean it should be big. Remember there are several fundamental design principles which catch our eyes, high contrast, rarified colors, focused objects, motion, and discontinuity, just to name a few.

Fact: If everything is important to you, nothing will be to your users

Don’t be afraid to let go.  I can’t tell you how many times this has happened: I start a project where an application has pages with several elements all at the top of the page competing for attention. While I try to prioritize the visibility of certain parts as a function of their importance at a certain stage of the user’s flow, each element is preserved by the company because “it’s important!”

The result is a cluttered homepage where users’ attentions are divided among too many too important things. With Fitts’ law in mind, focus on your top business goals and make it clear for users to take the desired action.

7. Users Should be More Efficient than your Application


Bruce Tognazzini has an excellent example to explain the paradox of user vs. system efficiency:‘…which of the following takes less time? Heating water in a microwave for one minute and ten seconds or heating it for one minute and eleven seconds?

From the standpoint of the microwave, 1:10 is the obviously correct answer. From the standpoint of the user, 1:11, as the user must only press the same key.

A separate but related component to this concept is the reduction of latency for the user. Reducing latency, also known as “multithreading,” is all about your application’s ability to perform tasks in the background or shift the user to other parts of the application while other tasks are being performed.

Tip: Perform tasks in the background so users don’t have to wait

For example, Google does not interrupt me from writing a document while it performs saving operations. Instead, a small banner of text tells me the state of the application. Facebook is able to convert the picture I’m about to post to a thumbnail while I’m still writing the message about said picture.

To empower your user to be efficient, ask yourself the following questions:
• When do my users have to wait?
• Can my application take on some of the user’s work?
• Can some tasks be performed simultaneous to the user’s interaction?

8. Help and Documentation


Of course, the ideal application needs no help or documentation. But we should never assume we are building such an application.

Documentation need not be a dominant element in an application, but it should be findable and associative. That is, users should be able to get to help quickly if needed and understand where to get help on specific parts of the application without a ton of searching.

At the same time, we are bound to ask ourselves if help elements are a feature or a burden. Help should always associate itself to the parts to which it provides assistance.

Tip: Help should be small enough to ignore but large enough to find when searching for it

Ask yourself these questions for a quick assessment of the availability of help in your application:
• Can the user get help at any point?
• Are my help elements a feature to those needing help but not a burden to those needing not?
• Does my documentation clearly refer to the elements it documents?

9. Balance Adequacy and Minimalism


Simplicity is a tremendously misunderstood concept and is often confused with “minimalism.” This was true after the initial Google explosion, the success of Twitter, and the prolonged comeback from Steve Jobs reclamation of Apple and its line of consumer products.

Simplicity = a balance of being minimal and adequate

Minimalism is about giving users what they want and need without dividing their focus amongst less relevant features. Adequacy is about having important and sought after features accessible, even if wrapped up neatly into an application which is minimalist in appearance.

Before you take away items from a page for that trendy ‘minimalist’ look, ask yourself if that really provides a benefit to the user. In addition, consider the following:
• Is information digestible or focus-dividing?
• Can the application provide abundant information and action without a cumbersome interface?
• Can large areas be broken up into parts (when beneficial to the user)?

10. Anticipation


I believe this is where UX talent and user relationship intimacy shines. Your application should have solid information architecture. This means items are findable and are the result of accurate anticipation of what the user wants or needs.

Good anticipation is reflected by the application’s employment of Fitts’ law, layout of items in the view, and complementary navigation, just to name a few. When I’m buying an iPhone on Amazon, I’m also shown links to get a case and accessories. While this is more likely motivated by cross-selling, the system has anticipated logical next steps to my purchasing of the device.

Ask yourself these questions:
• What actions logically follow common routes in my application?
• Are items where users would expect them to be?
• What auxiliary components can I sensibly offer to users in accordance to their desires/needs?

Conclusion


Take some time as early on in your application project as possible, even if only the first ten minutes of your morning coffee, to answer these questions.

If you already do user testing, avoid quantitative measurements (measuring users against target goals) until you have done enough qualitative measurements to generate the kind of questions from your users these heuristics can summarize.

Author’s Bio Adam Kochanowicz is a UX Specialist for Debtdomain.com in New York City. He writes regularly on User Experience and UI design at adamkochanowicz.com. Follow him on Twitter at @yourwebsitesUX.