Monthly Archives: March 2009

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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) 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)

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 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.

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Sometimes the best way to initiate a usability project is by using Concept Models to frame the discussion, centralize a team around a common goal and present the optimized solution

Concept Models Help Sell Usability

I recently read an article from Dan Brown entitled “In Which a Concept Model Makes Me Giddy.” Dan has good reason to be giddy, concept models are an excellent way to cut through barriers and help explain the associations of concepts for a design project, and also can provide the same benefits for a usability project. I like the article, and it got me thinking about some additional aspects of using concept models with usability projects. Concept models can frame the discussion, centralize a team around a common goal and present the optimized solution.

How Concept Models Fit into the Design Process:

According to Dan, there are 3 key ways concept models can be applied during the design process, these include:

1. Concept models can describe the structure of a system.

2. Concept models can frame the design problem.

3. Concept models can help designers understand the domain.

To these, I would add one more, which is…

4. Concept models can centralize a team toward a common goal.

It’s said a picture is worth a thousands words, and by using a concept model to visualize the ultimate design, a team can focus on the end result. Nothing helps a team all march in the same direction better than a clear and simple vision of the end goal. This makes it much easier when trying to coordinate a diverse group toward a common usability goal. Concept models can be the glue that holds a team together.

Six Benefits of Concept Models:

Dan continues, and discusses 6 benefits of concept models that help with a design project. These 6 benefits of a concept model can directly be applied to a usability project as well.

1. Highlight buried aspects of a domain that are hidden or dwarfed by other aspects.

2. Shift conversation away from one aspect of a solution, and help focus on bigger issues such as strategies or priorities.

3. Draw connections by coupling the concept model to a value proposition.

4. Uses active verbs to drive the conversation away from relationships (such as “does this belong here or there?”) and toward activity – how it will work.

5. Eliminate non-essential ideas that derail the concept or are a political agenda of a minority group in an organization.

6. Concept models can validate connections of concepts, or help demonstrate that the concept is not there.

According to Dan, concept models have a time and a place, and may not be useful for all situations or all audiences. As with any other tool we use to help communicate, concept models can be a powerful aid when considering domain impacts and associations early in the design phase.

Usability and Concept Models:

As I mentioned, concept models can frame the discussion, centralize a team around a common goal and present the optimized solution.

Framing the discussion early in a usability project is important if a clear end goal is to be created. I’ve seen many usability projects become tarnished or even fail because of differing goals of team members. Starting a usability project right by framing the discussion of what needs to be done with a concept model is good way to ensure all parties are focused. We all have to know where we’re going when starting a project, right?

Centralizing the usability team around the common goal by using concept models is also beneficial. If differing team members have differing goals, then the usability project is flawed from the start. It’s amazing how many usability projects are started without a clear and simple vision of what the end goal should be. Concept models can help visualize the end goal for the team.

Concept models can also help identify the optimized solution for a usability team. They are great talking points, and can be used to create several iterations of a customer experience that ultimately improves the usability while achieving business goals and customer satisfaction.

Concept Models: A Useful Usability Tool

The next time you have a usability project requiring a re-structuring of tasks and flows, consider using a concept model to demonstrate the current and optimized solution. By visualizing the experience with a concept model you’ll help enable your design and usability team to be more focused, and may ultimately find a better project, and solution, for the team.

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I had to think about why I like usability, turns out there’s 5 reasons. So, why do YOU like usability, how many reasons do you have?

So, you’re sitting there, reading this, and I’m guessing because of that you find usability interesting. And perhaps like me you’re wondering, why DO I like usability?

So, why do you? What is it about usability that causes you to find it interesting, rewarding or satisfying? I wonder sometimes, what is it that causes me to be drawn to usability? What makes me want to come to work and do a heuristic review, or interview application customers, or create a protocol? When I stop and think about it, and I did have to stop and think about it, I can come up with a few (meaning 5) reasons why I like usability.

Why I like usability:

1. It makes a difference for people:
I like making a difference and helping people. I’m betting you do too. I like being able to use my skills to improve a situation and make things better. By making a difference I find satisfaction in my day. I don’t need a medal or award or even a pat on the back, just knowing that I’m making a difference and helping people provides the incentive to come to work day after day after day.

2. It makes a difference for companies:
Usability is great in that it helps people, but at the end of the day it’s a company that provides me and my family our income. Without that company, and that paycheck, we would be in a rather difficult situation. Thus, helping my company is helping me and my family, and my co-workers, and customers, vendors and everyone else that is touched by my company. And it improves the business of the company, both of which make me feel good. I’m proud of my company, and I’m proud I can help my company grow, and be a better company.

3. It’s technical, without requiring being a coder.
Technology is fun for me (in moderation, I will freely profess that I am not a tech-head), and web technology is fun because it follows simple patterns and structures. HTML, the base of the web, is a rather simple and friendly language that follows simple rules, and is easy to learn. More advanced technology allows a much more sophisticated experience that is still based on patterns and structure. Much like traditional architecture, the technology of the web is easy to build on, and scale. I think many usability practitioners are actually closet builders or architects.

4. It involves people.
Coding and technology are fun and all, but I get a great sense of satisfaction in helping other people. I’m the guy that enjoys helping a lost couple find their way back to the main road, or helping a neighbor hang Halloween lights, or help my friends move (the ultimate sacrifice according to some). I just like helping people, and usability gives me non-stop opportunities to do that. I’ll bet you like helping people too.

5. It’s logical
Now as much as I like helping people, they are not always that easy to understand. The nice thing about usability is it’s highly logical. A task is a task, a test is a test, and if done right results will be consistent and clear. Making usability changes based on heuristics, based on common practices is also very logical. The usability logic of a “Submit” button is clear, the button should look a certain way and should work in a certain way. Usability is all about taking the surprise out of a web experience, and instead making it a more logical and self-evident experience.

So why do you like usability?

Why do you like usability? What’s the reason you go to work everyday, hoping for that next big usability project? Why did you get into usability, was is by plan or by accident? And what keeps you coming back for more? Can you list the reasons why YOU like usability?

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Adding live chat to an eCommerce web site can add sales, it can also provide additional opportunities to learn valuable usability information

It occurred to me recently that in all the usability blogging I’ve done, I’ve never written about what I actually have been doing for the past couple of years. I work at a company that provides live sales chat to large eCommerce web sites. Think of sales live chat as having real live sales people available on your eCommerce web site, to assist potential customers, answer their questions and help make sales.

How Live Chat Works

My company provides trained agents who are available via live chat (like instant messaging) to assist potential customers who may have product questions, or questions about completing an order. Our agents assist these customers, and if the customer completes the sale we receive a small commission. Since we only get paid if we make a sale, there is little economic risk to the company in adding our services. And since we host all the technology, agents and optimization services (me!) on our end, there is minimal technical risk to the company. The technical term for what we offer is pay-for-performance, turn-key live sales chat. The non-technical term is we help companies increase the number of sales on their web site with minimal resource and economic difficulty.

Live Chat and Usability

Beside the sales benefits provided by live chat, there’s an almost unlimited amount of real-time usability data flowing from live chats. Companies that use live chat can take advantage of this continuous flow of actual usability feedback and learn from it. This usability data use can be the basis to conduct additional usability testing and enhancements.

In addition, all transcripts from live chats are recorded and so are available for further evaluation and data mining. Add to that the ability to track which page the chatter started on, where they moved through the site and whether the completed tasks or not on each page, and you have an almost constant form of usability testing with your actual customers! Is it any wonder I get excited to come to work every day?

Three Ways to Use Live Chat Usability Data

There are multiple ways to use the enormous amount of usability data coming from live chats, but the three that are most readily available and helpful are:

  1. Live Chat Can Identify Task Flow Failure in Realtime:
    Often, customers are more than willing to explain in great detail where they are having a problem completing a task, if only given the opportunity. Live chat gives them that opportunity. Experience shows that customers who communicate with a chat agent will often start by providing information about exactly where they are having a problem. With several hundred chats per hour, it only takes a few minutes to quickly identify where a new task flow problem is occurring.

  2. Live Chat Transcripts are a Usability Gold Mine:
    As I mentioned, the data provided by live chat transcripts are a gold mine for usability practitioners. After analyzing just a small sampling of transcripts, it can become very clear where some major usability issues are, and what might be causing them. Extracting usability data out of transcripts is the least used, but perhaps most powerful form of usability evaluation, because it’s real customers trying to complete real transactions on the real site, nothing staged in a test lab with test participants representing Persona’s here!
  3. Live Chat Provides Instant Usability Testing:
    Want to evaluate usability changes to the task flow of your web site? The live chat feedback will provide you with that instant evaluation. After you make changes to a task flow, you can use live chat to determine how well those changes worked. Yes, you can track performance with web reporting, which will provide you with the “how much” or amount of change, but only live chat provides the “why” for the change. Real customers in live chat can provide feedback that can be used to evaluate the amount and degree that the change helped (or hurt) the task. After only an hour or two of tracking live chats, it will become apparent whether the task flow change should be kept, or removed.

Conclusion – Live Chat Provides a Wealth of Usability Data

I’ve not even touched on all the other beneficial aspects of live chat, including live chat A/B testing, optimization, sales / product feedback but even without that live chat provides tremendous amounts of usability data. Companies that use live chat to provide a live sales person on their eCommerce web site not only benefit from additional sales, but benefit from a continuous and live usability feedback stream.

For more about live chat, or my company please visit