Conducting a Website Usability Review:
In the world of usability, nothing seems to confuse my clients more than trying to determine exactly what a usability review is. And it’s difficult to purchase something if you don’t know what it is!
You can think about a usability review this way, it’s kind of the same as going to a doctor for a check-up, your web site will be examined to find usability issues (ailments) and you’ll be provided with recommended optimizations (prescriptions) for improvements. Usability reviews are not generally well known or understood. Why? Because the usability field itself does not have a single, consistent, standardized definition of “usability review.” It’s an interesting and ironic truth that usability professionals who pride themselves on utilizing standards for testing and optimizing web sites can’t create their own set of standard definitions of common usability terms. Go figure.
So, what is a website usability review and how do you do one?
Since there is no consistent standardized definition of a usability review (also known as an expert review, expert usability review, usability audit, heuristic evaluation, etc. etc. etc.) I’ll go ahead and give you mine:
Craig’s definition of a usability review:
“A usability review is an evaluation of a user interface versus common usability best practices and heuristics by a trained usability professional.”
So in the spirit of sharing and giving, here are the steps I use when conducting a review. By following these steps, you will have all the information necessary to conduct your own usability review.
Step 1 – Become a trained usability professional, or save time and hire one.
As with most any other professional such as a doctor, lawyer or elephant-trainer, it’s important to have an education and experience in the practice. Usability testing of critical tasks and usability reviews are not about providing opinions about a design, conducting focus groups or deploying a satisfaction survey on a web site.
Rather, usability testing and reviews are a scientific approach to analyzing a user interface and task-flow to determine where (and why) there are problems that cause users to have difficulty completing their tasks.
Using a trained usability professional for your usability review means taking the guess-work out of conducting the evaluation, and ensuring that a non-biased approach is used.
Step 2 – Identify critical goals for the web site or application:
More than likely, there are multiple goals for your web site or application. The important aspect of a usability review is to focus on the most critical goals. This is because narrowing down the focus enables evaluation of specific tasks associated with that critical goal or goals, and helps shape the subsequent to-do list of potential optimizations derived from the review.
For an eCommerce site like Blue Nile it’s probably selling diamond engagement rings.
For an informational site like the State library of Kansas it’s probably helping you find the literature you are looking for.
Whatever your web site or application has for critical goals, those are the ones that you should focus on first when conducting a usability review.
Step 3 – Define typical users via a Persona:
The vast majority of web sites and applications have typical users who share a common set of domain expertise (knowledge of the field) and critical tasks. Identifying the Persona (a fictional representation of the typical user) is critical. This is because the usability review must take into consideration the type of person who is interacting most frequently with the user interface. It must consider their familiarity or lack thereof with the terminology, information architecture, navigation schema and related user interface systems they interact with.
For example, the Persona used for a usability review of a web site that deals with precision electronic measurement probes for the engineering industry, such as on MicronTesa.com may be quite different from that of a Persona who visits VirginAtlantic looking to book a flight to Heathrow.
Basic usability standards apply across all users, but specific “mental maps” (expectations of labeling and information architecture – groupings of information) must be considered when conducting a usability review.
Step 4 – Conduct the critical tasks:
With the above steps completed, now the actual “review” of the web site or application can take place. The identified critical tasks are conducted one at a time, yes even down to purchasing that airline ticket – make sure you purchase a fully-refundable ticket of course!
As each task is conducted, the usability review identifies specific task issues as well as general usability issues as defined by usability heuristics (best practices).
What are the usability heuristics?
According to Jakob Nielsen the 10 usability heuristics are:
- Visibility of system status
- Match between system and the real world
- User control and freedom
- Consistency and standards
- Error prevention
- Recognition rather than recall
- Flexibility and efficiency of use
- Aesthetic and minimalist design
- Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
- Help and documentation
Typically each critical task has to be conducted many times, and each time a separate usability heuristic is evaluated against the task. Issues are noted, typically with screen shots captured and detailed information about the usability issue found.
NOTE: It’s important at this point to NOT list out every single issue you find with each of the above usability heuristics in a review. Why? Because you would end up with a very large and overly detailed document (probably hundreds of pages long) that nobody would read or use! My reviews do not list out the 10 Heuristics above in detail. Instead, I make sure to summarize groupings of heuristics into the key issues I’ve found into a short, readable Usability Review. And call it a ‘Review’ so that your readers understand you are providing them actionable information for the key issues found, not every single issue as that would be overwhelming and well, not usable!
Step 5 – Compile the analysis
By now, you have a great amount of information about specific usability issues in the task flows. Although you *could* list each one out separately, but imagine the size of that massive document! A better way to compile the analysis is with a set of grouped issues that highlight the key opportunities for improvement you found. In addition, I like to provide screen shots documenting the issues, with commentary provided.
It’s important to also include suggestions or recommendations to improve the usability issues found. After all, nobody wants to receive a laundry-list of problems with no hope of improvement.
As mentioned, there should be several issues that all share common traits, these can be grouped together. I like to group issues into buckets of commonality, such as those involving:
- Information architecture
- Labeling (taxonomy)
- Functional flow
- Form function
- Error handling and messaging
Step 6 – Present the analysis
More than likely the client will be faced with a litany of problems, issues and snafus. When presenting the results of the usability review, I always like to start with some positives. I typically will provide (as best I can) screen shots and commentary of the good points of the web site or application. This has two purposes:
- If provides the recipient of the bad news with a glimmer of hope
- It reminds everyone that the web site or application has benefits, benefits that can and should be mentioned
There’s one other important point to consider about a usability review, and that is there’s no such thing as the perfect usability review. I always like to remind my recipients that a usability review, because it’s conducted by one person, will not catch all the usability issues that might be present.
But by focusing on the critical tasks of the web site or application, hopefully the most significant usability issues are identified, and recommendations for improvements made available.
Conclusion: How to conduct a usability review
So there you have it, those are the steps I use in developing a usability review. Whether you call it a heuristic review, a usability audit or an expert review, the point is it’s a great way to learn about issues and opportunities to improve a web site or application.
And if you would like me to send you a sample usability review (not a complete review as this was for a client, but you’ll see how to do it) so you can see how to create your own usability review, I am selling the sample for a pittance at just $9.95 (please note that due to it being a digital download I can’t provide a refund, as well, you have the document!).