15 Valuable Usability PDFs You Never Heard Of


Here’s a list of 15 valuable Usability Papers in PDF form that you might not have heard of, but should know and can use:

15 Valuable Usability PDFsI thought I’d list a few helpful papers I use from time to time when going about my usability work. Some of these you may have heard of, some not. I think you’ll find these very helpful from time to time. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, rather, it’s the list of the most thumb-worn papers I leaf through when needed. They are all free, and are publicly available.

If you have a special usability PDF you find extremely helpful and it’s not listed here please do share them in the Comments (go ahead, share them right now), that way we can all grow smarter about usability together!

I hope you find these helpful!

Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2006)

Usability.gov should be in any usability fan’s list. This is actually not one PDF, but 18 that cover the entire process of researching, designing and usability testing a web site. Written in plain English, and being user-friendly itself, this is an excellent resource for anyone dealing with web sites or usability.

A Comparison of Questionnaires for Assessing Website Usability
Assessing Website Usability by Tullis and Stetson, from the UPA 2004 Conference (2004)

How well do web site usability questionnaires apply to the assessment of websites? Can a web site questionnaire work well as an adjunct to a usability test, with a relatively small number of users? This is a handy reference I use from time to time when putting together new usability questionnaires. It contains good reminders of best practices.

25 Point Usability Checklist
The User Effect 2009 25-point Website Usability Checklist (2009)

Nice one-page checklist of usability (and non-usability) items to look for when designing. I’m not sure I would classify all of them strictly with the label “usability” but it’s a handy list of reminders of what to look for from a heuristic standpoint.

Usability Issues in Web Site Design by Bevan, from the UPA 1998 Conference (1998)

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Excellent brief overview of usability issues to consider in designing web sites. Don’t let the age of this document throw you, all of these items are just as pertinent to web site usability today as they were in 1998.

Remote Web Site Usability Testing by Gardner, from the International Journal of Public Information Systems (2007)

Very nice summary and how-to of remote testing the UNECE Statistical Division’s web site. Remote usability testing, if conducted properly and with an understanding of the trade-offs vs in-person testing, is an excellent way to gather useful usability feedback with reduced cost and maximum geographic reach.

Examining the Usability of Web Site Search by English, Hearst, Sinha, Swearington, and Yee, School of Information Management & Systems University of California, Berkeley (2002)

We all know that Metadata is important for search (or we should!). This paper clearly defines Metadata’s appliction in a search context and provides results from a test of three search interfaces. By the way, one of the authors, Rashmi Sinha is the creator of one of my favorite remote usability / survey tools: The Mind Canvas

Guidelines for Usability Testing with Children by Hanna, Risden & Alexander, Microsoft (1997)

As more and more teens and children use the internet and web-based applications, it becomes necessary to consider usability testing with children. There are differences to conducting usability testing with children versus adults. A smart usability practitioner will consider the special requirements needed to conduct usability testing with children. This article is a good introduction, with excellent how-to tips to conduct usability testing with children.

WordPress Usability Testing Report by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design (2008)

Very interesting usability study of one of the most popular blog authoring tools in the world. Provides detailed description of the usability testing method and results, including the use of eye-tracking. Provides a wealth of ideas for those designers who develop publishing platforms.

Net Rage A Study of Blogs and Usability by Catalyst Design Group (2005)

Blogging and social media have mass attention these days, but what makes for a good blog consumer experience? This is a good example of a usability test of a blog, in this case the WellSpent blog from Businessweek.com. Included are the findings, which can be applied equally well today against any blog. If you own or manage a blog, or need to usability test one, this is a great primer.

Key Questions to Ask Your Usability Testing Supplier by UK Usability Professionals Association (2003)

If you are not experienced in usability and are seeking a vendor to assist you with usability testing, this is a nice, simple checklist to use to ensure your vendor actually knows what they are talking about, and will provide you with a professional usability study. If you are a usability practitioner, you may wish to consult with this guide, and make sure you include these items in any response you provide to a prospective client.

Designing for Usability: Key Principles and What Designers Think by Gould and Lewis, IBM, from Communications of the ACM (1985)

One of the Grand-daddys of usability articles, this article proposed the Three Principles of Design: 1. Early Focus on Users and Tasks, 2. Empirical Measurement and 3. Iterative Design. The discussion in this article is ageless and still holds true today as it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Usability Testing of Mobile Applications: A Comparison between Laboratory and Field Testing by Kaikkonen, Kallio, Keklinen, Kankainen, Cankar, Journal of Usability Studies (2005)

Usage of mobile applications has exploded in the past few years, so conducting usability testing of the holistic user experience of a mobile hardware/software application is important. But how do you do it? If you test in a controlled lab environment, you have a more precise test, but miss the other environmental variables that might have a dramatic impact on the user experience. If you test in the field, you have less control and thus a less precise test, but can include those all-important environmental variables. This article explores the issues, and presents some findings and suggestions on the best way to conduct mobile application usability testing.

Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt by Whitten and Tygar (1999)

Another oldie but goodie. Good explanation of how usability testing of security encryption software was developed and conducted, along with the findings. Don’t laugh at the screen-shots of the user interface, we all thought those gray square buttons were cool in 1999.

A Study of Vote Verification Technology Conducted for the Maryland State Board of Elections, Part II: Usability Study by The Center for American Politics and Citizenship and The Human-Computer Interaction Lab University of Maryland (2006)

For those of you in the United States, do you remember that whole “hanging-chad” issue of vote counting in Florida? A flurry of proposed electronic and other more user-friendly (and accurate) voting systems were proposed, and all of a sudden the study of voting usability took off. This is a good summary of the usability testing portion of a study conducted for the State of Maryland to recommend a better voting system.

Making Usability Recommendations Useful and Usable by Molich, Jeffries and Dumas, Journal of Usability Studies (2007)

As it turns out, even usability practitioners can sometimes produce work that is not very user-friendly. This article is based on the results from the Comparative Usability Evaluation 4 (CUE-4) study, in which 17 professional usability teams separately diagnosed and made improvement recommendations on a hotel web site. The teams’ recommendations were evaluated and the results… Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say there’s plenty of room for improvement in how to make useful and usable usability recommendations. This is a very helpful best-practices document to review prior to putting together a recommendations document based on usability testing results.


  1. Good job, very nice compilation, thank you so much! BTW, I wonder with PDF around for so many years now why people still can’t get the twist to furnish their PDFs with bookmarks or make their ToC clickable … :-}

  2. Thanks for the nod! We also did a usability comparison of the 2 presidential candidate sites that might interest your readers: here. And watch for more interesting papers soon.

  3. It would be great if there was a tool available that offers comprehensive usability analysis the way the highlighted articles do. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Another expression of thanks for this list – I'd spent a while trawling for useful info and this post gave me what I needed

  5. Nice list but some of the documents are way old and may not apply to current Usability methods today.

  6. Thanks for the nice comments all.

    Hi @jannko, yes some of these are old. However I would debate the notion that they "do not apply" today due to current usability methods.

    The usability methods discussed in even the oldest (for example the IBM "Designing for Usability" pdf) are just as relevant today – since the idea covered in the document of including users in design is by definition a best practice (and so my thinking goes is ageless).

    Good usability practices do not go out of style, whether they are from 1985 or 2009 good practice is still good practice, because it's based on human psychology and the understanding of how we behave. Usability testing methods that include new tools such as eye tracking and related techniques are certainly exciting, and different. But they don't take away from the other (older) methods of usability testing, for example contextual observation and 1-on-1 performance based tests.

    I think Dr. Mayhew put it best in her interview (http://useful-usability.blogspot.com/2009/07/interview-with-dr-deborah-j-mayhew.html) when she said:

    People have not changed much in the last 50 years (or 50,000 for that matter) and all of the principles of usability are premised on understanding human information processing capabilities and weaknesses. Usability methods are similarly premised on how to measure and interpret human behavior.

    While changes in technology do open up new possibilities, or place new constraints on the design of human-computer interaction (eg, limits of handheld mobile devices), most of the design principles and methods are universal and platform-independent.

  7. During my creation of a course for effective and converting webpages, I stumbled into this post. I thank you for bringing together so much relevant information!
    It saves people tons of time in the overload of information about this topic.

  8. Thank you Ramnath, I appreciate the head’s up. I’ve updated the link to now point to the correct Usability.gov guidelines index page. Thanks for the tip!

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