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useful usability

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The Top 10 Useful Usability Articles for 2010

Technically the year is not over yet, but I think it’s pretty safe to provide you with the list of the top 10 most popular Useful Usability articles.  Who determined the top 10 list?  You and your fellow readers did! My methodology was simple, I evaluated Google Analytics to determine the most popular content for 2010 as measured by unique page views.  Turns out there were a few interesting surprises in the list!

2010 Top 10 Articles from Useful Usability

So here then, ranked in order are the top 10 most popular articles as ranked by you…

1. 24 Usability Testing Tools

This article provides a list of 24 usability testing tools that I either use, or found particularly interesting.  The important thing to note about these tools is the vast majority are relative cheap and easy to use.  Trying out even a few of the tools from this list would be a great idea for any firm interested in expanding the amount and quality of its user research.

2. 15 Valuable Usability PDFs You Never Heard Of

A multi-year winner for top 10, this popular article lists 15 valuable usability documents in PDF form that many people may not be aware of.  It’s interesting to note that even though some of the research or findings are relatively speaking older, they still provide meaningful and relevant information on user experience best practices.  It’s definitely a list worth bookmarking.

3. Usability Is In The Details

This little article received a surprising amount of interest and comments, as it seems many people continue to be focused on improving minor, yet annoying, usability details as part of their optimization of interaction design.  The summary of this article in effect is a reminder to pay attention to the details, because even seemingly minor usability issues can cause vastly decreased performance and thus poor results.

4. How To Conduct A Usability Review

Students and practitioners alike seem to be interested in conducting usability reviews.  In my opinion this interest has increased over the years, which I attribute to the good job of educating and informing the masses on what usability is and why it benefits people and companies.  Hopefully this trend will continue to grow, as there are still plenty of examples of websites and applications that could use some improved usability mojo.

5. 5 Radical Ideas From Usability Presentations

I’m glad to see this article ranking so high, as it is one of my favorites and a good reminder that radical, meaning potentially useful, usability ideas are all around us, including in the 5 presentations mentioned.  I’m hoping that the growing interest in optimizing the user experience of websites and applications will extend well into 2011 and beyond and that we will be adding to this list with additional ideas.

6. 8 Free Tools For Good Information Architecture And Usability

This article lists 8 free useful tools for information architecture primarily, with extensions into usability.  There’s a growth of interesting free or cheap information architecture tools on the market and I urge you to try testing out a few new ones in the new year to see how they work for you.  You might just find a new favorite!

7. Usability Testing Makes Killer Online Marketing Campaigns

This article, an examination of how to use usability testing to make killer online marketing campaigns, is another favorite of mine, and I’m glad to see one of yours too.  This article is written for online marketing teams and is a reminder that one of the best ways to improve conversion is to conduct some usability testing prior to going live with a campaign.  Incremental improvements in conversion of 5 to 15% or more could easily turn a bust campaign into a goldmine.  I hope more online marketing teams will try usability testing of campaigns in the New Year, I think they’ll be thanking me (PS – If you feel like thanking me, I am easy to shop for, I like anything with a Dallas Cowboys logo on it).

8. 10 Must See Usability Videos

It’s reassuring to know that people are actually watching some of these 10 must see usability videos, because according to my Google Analytics report the average on-page time for this page is well over 11 minutes.  I hope that more interesting talks and seminars will eventually make it up onto YouTube and related sites, video is a great way to present interesting and compelling user experience information.  If a picture paints a thousand words, then these 10 usability videos are rich libraries of billions and billions of useful words.

9. 7 Reasons Why You Can’t Sell Usability

Another of my favorites, 7 Reasons Why You Can’t Sell Usability is directly aimed at the freelancers, small companies and even mega firms that are trying to assist their customers and clients with improved conversion and better sales.  And between you and me another reason this is one of my favorites is because of the cool graphics I created to help visually express the story.  But hey, that’s just the inner artist in me talking, there’s lots of good content including a valuable list of further resources at the bottom.  If you’ve not read this yet I urge you to do so, you won’t be sorry.

10. Main Navigation Types and Usability Part 2, Vertical Navigation

This one completely surprises me for two reasons; first, I wrote this in 2009 and at that time I felt it didn’t receive a lot of comments or apparent interest, and second, I assumed it would be somewhat old news to interaction designers and usability practitioners.  I’m gratified to know I was wrong on both assumptions.  I never did finish the series off (the third installment was to be on footer navigation), I may have to correct that error and write the final article.

Conclusion: Top 10 Useful Usability Articles for 2010

So that’s the list for the 2010 top 10 most popular useful usability articles as indicated by unique page views.  If I’ve left out your favorite be sure to mention it in the comments!  And happy new year to you!

You should be a usability zombie. Really!

Usability and Zombies

Zombie by wvs via Creative Commons licenseUsability and zombies go together like Halloween and candy corn.

Why? Because of a few things that zombies do really well from a management perspective that you should copy and mimic. What with Halloween coming along it makes sense for you to consider this sage advice and carefully implement it. I guarantee it’ll help you be a better usability practitioner, or double your money back (wait, you didn’t pay anything, oh well, you get the idea).

By the way, you can thank me later because being a usability zombie not only in your work activities, but physically dressing up as one at your next Halloween office party guarantees you notoriety, a win for ‘most creative costume’ and a few highly trafficked photos on Flickr, (just give me credit for your big win, ok?).

For those of you who don’t know what a zombie is (and how was living in that cave all your life anyway?), Wikipedia defines a zombie as (yes, Wikipedia does too have a page for zombies why are you surprised?):

“A zombie is a creature that appears in folklore and popular culture typically as a reanimated corpse or a mindless human being.”

Craig defines zombies as:

“Dead people that some unknown (potentially evil) force reanimates so they can walk the earth again, but this time instead of wondering how come their iPhone isn’t forwarding their latest email (while sipping their non-fat no whip Grande mocha) they’re looking for delicious living human flesh to eat (by the way, goes great with the non-fat no whip Grande mocha, try it! and tell your friends!).”

If you need to research Zombies and usability, I highly recommend one of my favorite so-cheesy-it’s-great Zombie movies for your edification, ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ (the original 1978 version, not the re-make) by George A. Romero.

You see, Zombies have some excellent qualities that make them outstanding at getting things done with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency.

So here’s a few zombie qualities you should employ when going about your usability duties, well, like a zombie:

1. Zombies are focused

Zombies have but one purpose, one goal, one mission. In their case it’s to eat living human flesh. This makes them excellent managers, because they never lose their focus, and they stay on track no matter what obstacles are in their way.

Likewise, you as a usability practitioner must be focused. You must not let obstacles stop you. Your sole (so to speak) goal is to generate more money for your company or client. No really, it is! You just happen to be using your expert talents at usability to accomplish this goal.

Usability is NOT the end goal, usability is but a means to a goal. And that goal is to help your company ( or your client’s company) do what it does better, faster and cheaper. Period.

If your company sells mobile cellular devices and plans, then focus all your usability energy on helping the company sell more cellular devices and plans.

If your organization is a library, then focus all your usability energy on making it easier for your library visitors to find and access the literature they need.

If you company sells Space Pet Clothes (yes, a company does actually sell space pet clothes (why do you not believe me, I’ve not steered you wrong yet, have I?) then by gosh use your usability talents to help them sell more space pet clothes.

And speaking of space pet clothes, yes, the Picard shirt (Best Captain – other than Kirk of course) would look GREAT on Jake, my Chihuahua.

Jake, Craig Tomlin's dog
Jake would look good in space pet clothes

Anyway, be like a zombie, focus 100% of your usability energy on improving your (or your client’s) organization’s ability to sell or deliver whatever they make, sell or service.

2. Zombies are slow but steady

Zombies are slow, but they never stop. This makes them excellent at staying the course and getting things done.

Usability practitioners who maintain a slow but steady pace can accomplish huge amounts of work. Like the story of the Turtle and the Hare, sometimes being too fast, not paying attention to detail and not staying steady will hurt you.

The latest fads are great and all, but the best way to be productive and accomplish usability improvements is by focusing on doing the things that matter, and ignoring the temptation to be thrown off course by some newfangled gadget or idea.

Be like a zombie, slow and steady. You’ll get that living human flesh usability improvement done and make a difference for your firm before you know it.

3. Zombies “live for” human flesh

OK, this one is a bit of a stretch but stay with me. Zombies live for (so to speak) and love eating human flesh, it’s pretty much what they excel at and what they know really, really well. They are experts at finding and devouring flesh.

Likewise, you should be an expert at usability, it should be your love. This means studying up on usability, talking about it with others and generally staying current with usability information and education.

Like loving human flesh, loving usability and taking opportunities to stay informed about it is a great way to improve your usability skills. Reading blogs (such as this one), books and using other resources like the Usability Professional’s Association (UPA) is an excellent way to continuously educate yourself about usability and our industry. The UPA has some excellent newsletters and magazines. If you’re not a member, it’s easy to join the UPA, and the education and information you will have access to will be very helpful.

4. Zombies don’t quit

One of the most redeeming qualities of a zombie is the fact that they will not stop, nor be persuaded to quit or give up. From a management standpoint this means when the going gets tough, the tough get (and keep) going.

For usability practitioners, there may be difficulties or seemingly impossible situations to deal with, but don’t give up.

Keep on trying, and don’t be at all afraid to do what zombies do and go up, around, over, under or across obstacles. Zombies don’t quit with their mission, neither should you.

5. Zombies have no politics

Zombies do not form groups or cliques, and zombies don’t spend time politically maneuvering themselves to corporate advantage. Neither should you.

Like a good zombie, you must refrain from the usual office politics, gossiping or other political forms of energy-drain, and instead stay true to usability and your purpose. I’m not advising you to hide from your peers, but if someone starts in on rumors or other company gossip, find a reason to politely excuse yourself and exit gracefully. No need to participate in time wasting bashing of others. Instead, focus on bashing some usability problems out of existence.

A good user experience is not just about web sites or applications, it’s about the quality of your time with your co-workers and peers. Make it a good experience and don’t participate in negative company politics.

Conclusion: Zombies and Usability

So now that you’ve had a chance to ‘digest’ all this excellent living human flesh usability information I think you’ll agree with me that zombies and usability go together like Halloween and candy corn.

Usability work, if practiced with a zombie-like determination, will have an impact on your organization, and on you!

So now that we both agree that being a usability zombie is a good thing, what’s YOUR favorite zombie movie?

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I Am Surprised and Honored to Make Mashable’s List of Top 10 Must-Follow Usability Experts

Wow! I am very surprised and very humbled to be considered as a top 10 Must-Follow usability expert by Mashable. My name’s listed right up there with the likes of legends like J.M. Spool and the Nielsen Norman Group.

W Craig Tomlin listed as 1 of Mashable's top 10 must-follow usability experts

Of course, Mashable didn’t tell me this or warn me or anything – so this was a complete surprise, and a very nice surprise at that – once I figured out what was going on.

Actually, it was such a surprise that at first I thought a hacker had infiltrated my Twitter account and was having EVERYONE follow me! Follows were coming in at the rate of 10 to 20 a minute for a while! Since the coffee hadn’t taken full effect (it was after all about 6:30AM) I prepared to go “private” on my twitter profile – and change the password and alert Twitter to my hacked account!

Good thing I paused to actually read the Tweets that were coming in – which is when it dawned on me that I had received this great compliment, and the follows were “legit.”

Useful Usability

So, here we are, talking about useful usability. As my readers will know (you and my mom – hi mom!) I’ve been going on and on blogging about the benefits that usability can provide, and how easy it is to add usability to a web site or application project. I guess there’s now more reason than ever to blog about useful usability – as I like to call it.

What is “Useful Usability?”

In my mind, useful usability is three things:

  1. WHAT: Making usability useful by educating people about what usability is (and isn’t), the benefits of incorporating usability in web and application design, and why it’s good for business.Cash Money - Photo courtesy Nathangibbs via Creative CommonsMy belief is usability is about improving a business by increasing revenue or decreasing costs, or both!

    Although there’s a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that usability improvements can help the human condition, the reality is usability is most typically consumed by companies looking to sell, or help support the selling of their products.

    If the usability is not directly involved in improving revenue generation (as part of the product, or application used to sell the product), it is used to improve applications (think employee intranet tools) that are used to support the business that sells the product.

    The often-mentioned good usability of the iPod, Shuffle or iPhone IS the product, in the sense that it absolutely reflects the brand and the user experience that many consumers expect and are glad to pay for.

  2. WHERE: Providing useful usability best practices, tips and sometimes war-stories of where and how I and others actually go about adding usability to a project.Photo courtsey ktpupp, on Flickr, via Creative CommonsJust like going to the dentist, conducting usability testing and optimization early and often is the simplest and easiest way to eliminate yucky plaque build-up web site problems and get the biggest bang for your application development buck. Depending on where you are in the software (or hardware) development life cycle, differing methods of usability testing are needed to provide actionable and valid data.

    Applying usability testing data to make real improvements can and should be validated using key performance indicators (KPIs). And make no mistake, usability will permanently improve conversion of web sites.

  3. HOW: Demonstrating that usability does not have to be cumbersome or expensive. Usability can be done quickly, efficiently and for low or no cost.Saving money by using low cost usability methods is a great idea. Saving money by not using a usability expert to conduct usability testing and optimization is a very bad idea.

    That’s because usability testing is not about gathering lots of opinions (that’s the world of surveys and error rates and statistical significance). Usability testing is not about asking a few users to pretend to use the site and tell you what they like or don’t like (that’s using one person’s opinion to base business-critical decisions on – ouch).

    Usability Test by l-i-n-k, on Flickr, via Creative CommonsUsability testing is typically about applying detailed Personas to a specific set of critical tasks using a carefully controlled 1-on-1 performance based test to evaluate precisely where issues are in a task flow.

    Only by consistently observing the same task flow errors being repeated again and again can a verifiable usability error be uncovered – and optimizations recommended.

Useful Usability

So that’s my take on usability and what I believe useful usability is all about.

I sincerely hope my usability posts will help you in your goal of using or understanding usability. And please add your comments, suggestions or rants thoughts about usability – together we can all grow more informed about usability!

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What is Useful Usability?

I like to think of a definition of “useful usability” as:

“Helping to make things easier to use in a quick & easy manner”

“Helping”

I think helping in this useful usability definition refers to the fact that the vast majority of usability practitioners do not actually code and make their recommended usability changes. As usability experts, all the usability practitioners I’ve ever met or known typically test, then suggest or identify improvements to teams that actually do the work. This is not a negative, it’s the same concept as an architect who does not grab hammer and nails to build the design he or she developed. What this means is that usability practitioners must be experts at propagating ideas and concepts, and must work very well with teams, both business and IT, to communicate ideas, concepts and specific recommendations for change.

“Make things easier to use”

Making things easier is what useful usability is all about. Whether it’s a ball-point pen, a company web site or a cell phone, making something easy to use provides increased user satisfaction, which ultimately provides businesses with a product or service that can be sold well. Making things easier from the business’ perspective means making things more profitable. If we do our job well, then companies make more money. We do that by making things easier for the end customer, thus more satisfying, resulting in a more rewarding customer experience which ultimately drives sales (and thus profits) for firms.

“But,” you say, “I don’t build external stuff, I only work on employee applications, or I work for a not-for-profit.”

Doesn’t matter. By making internal employee applications easier to use you are helping to drive more profits, in the form of increased employee production, for your firm. Not-for-profits are the same, your efforts make your not-for-profit more efficient, resulting in better production for the firm, which can take the savings gained and use it elsewhere to better fund operations.

Smart usability practitioners always summarize their work in terms of revenue gained, or operational savings earned for a firm. If you always communicate the business value your efforts are helping to create, you’ll pretty much always have a value for the firm and thus a job!

“Quick and easy manner”

Useful usability is about getting usability done. I once conducted an amazingly long and expensive usability test of the Blue Cross of California web site. We brought users in representing the typical Personas of our users. We set up a location near downtown LA with a full usability lab with multiple cubes, computers, video cameras and usability analysts. It took me about 9 months, from inception of the project to final delivery of the analysis document. In a massively attended meeting with all the VP “stakeholders” of each division of the company present, we delivered our analysis of where there were usability issues with the site. Half way through the presentation, one of the VP stakeholders interrupted the presentation. “OK, we get it, the web site sucks” he said. “So what are your doing to fix it?” I blinked several times, at a loss for words. The reality was I had done nothing to fix it, I had just spent almost a year simply analyzing it and pointing out what needed to be fixed. I had entered the “analysis paralysis” zone.

From that point forward, I realized that to be effective, usability should be useful, meaning efficient. Useful usability then became my mantra. Do usability testing and optimization simply, quickly, and deliver results to make changes. Usability does not have to be a mind-numbing exercise of massive proportions. It can be as simple as paper and pencil wireframes, card-sorts using 3×5 index cards and observing real users over their shoulder as they interact with a ball-point pen, web site or a cell phone.

What Useful Usability Means

So, the definition of useful usability is really about doing your usability tasks simply, quickly and delivering results that can be acted upon almost immediately. By making usability useful, you make yourself useful, and ultimately you help your firm and it’s customers, which in my opinion is one of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of being a usability practitioner.

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Usability.gov, a Handy Usability Resource

Did you know there are useful usability tips, templates and user-centered design information available for FREE at a easy-to-use .gov site? The one that stands out in my mind, and there are a few that stand out, is http://www.usability.gov/.

http://www.usability.gov/ is a useful place to find easy and helpful information about usability and user centered design. Intended primarily for Government agencies and contractors, it nevertheless has excellent content for anyone interested in usability.

Usability.gov has an easy and useful information architecture. Major sections walk you though the usability process with a Step by Step usability guide. Sections include; Plan, Analzye, Design and Test & Refine.

Another way to get to specific content is through the Usability Topics sections, which are:

  • Usability & Government - A section designed to help Government employees or contractors create or optimize government websites.
  • Usability Basics - Provides an overview of usability along with answers to many usability questions.
  • Research-based Guidelines - A treasure-trove of almost 300 pages of PDF guidelines on how to design user-friendly web sites including topics on navigation, content, search and plenty more.
  • Templates & Examples - Free downloadable templates that can be used to manage just about all aspects of usability, usability testing and user-centered design.
  • Usability Methods - A list and definition of various usability and user-centered design methods.

The site also has newsletters, alas the last and only 2008 edition was published in April. There’s an RSS feed, again not used very often at all in the past year or so, and information about meetings and events, which is current.

Advanced usability gurus may not find anything new or different there, but beginner usability practitioners could find it a real help as they begin conducting user-centered design. Even experts should find it refreshing to review the information just to see what’s there and how it’s presented. By the way, for all you who are interested in Search Engine Optimization, you’ll find that the web site itself offers plenty of best practices demonstrated quite well for you too.

Be sure to save http://www.usability.gov/ in your favorites or bookmarks, I’m betting you’ll find it a handy resource to refer to from time to time. Enjoy!

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Hello and welcome to Useful Usability!

This blog about useful usability will be my attempt to provide you with helpful tips, insights and tools you can use when practicing usability. I hope to keep things simple, light and most importantly USEFUL, to provide you with an easy and quick way to gain usability knowledge, or at least flame me if you disagree with something I’ve said!

So who am I and why should you bother reading my posts? Well, I’m a Certified Usability Analyst and have been practicing the dark art / semi-science of usability and user-centered design for over 10 years. I’ve conducted well over 500 usability testing sessions, research studies, redesign projects and other assorted usability-type projects, and I have broken up more fights over what’s the right way to present a burning, spinning logo on the home page than I can remember.

I’ve worked at or for big and small companies; Fortune 100 companies, Fortune 500 companies, and companies who were lucky to be able to afford a copy of Fortune magazine. All of them needed usability help to some degree, but many of them didn’t realize it! So, in the coming days, weeks months and perhaps years I’ll be providing my input, insight and intellectual property to you, hoping that you find value in my attempts to inform and inspire you.

Thank you for reading and please do comment back, a one-sided conversation is after all rather dull!

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