Useful Usability Resources
This page is full of useful usability resources you may find helpful from time to time.
NEW! Usability Vendor Checklist
DOWNLOAD the new Usability Vendor Checklist PDF
Choosing a qualified usability vendor can be a difficult proposition for firms seeking usability services. Unlike most other professional services (such as accounting or human resources consulting) usability is a relatively unknown quantity for many companies, and often they have little or no experience with the methodology for evaluating usability vendors.
A recommended approach for fairly and accurately evaluating potential usability vendors is to incorporate a checklist of common usability practices and procedures in a Request For Information (RFI) or Request For Proposal (RFP) that any competent usability vendor can respond to.
By using this checklist as a part of the early information-gathering process, and requiring potential vendors to provide this information as part of a RFI or RFP response, firms will have the information they need with which to compare usability vendors in a fair and impartial manner.
DOWNLOAD the new Usability Vendor Checklist PDF
What is Usability?
According to Wikipedia, Usability is
a qualitative attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.
For websites, usability generally equates to how efficient the web site is to use, how easy it is to learn and how satisfying the experience associated with the site.
Web site usability can be measured by indirect methods. Typical usability measurements might be; time to complete a task, whether a task was successfully completed or not or number of errors encountered. Other methods of usability testing can quantify the overall satisfaction of the website or tasks.
In addition to task-based assessments, there are other forms of usability analysis and measurement. Some of the more common forms include “heuristic reviews,” expert reviews of websites based on design best practices; “eye tracking” which uses an apparatus to track where on the screen a user looks, as well as “heat maps” or “clickstream” data that record the location and number of clicks users make on a page or pages.
Usability has two important bottom-line benefits for a business:
First - Usability increases website conversion by making websites easier for customers to use
Second - Usability reduces expensive web site post launch “fixes” by designing usable sites from inception
Additional Usability Resources
- Usability.gov – The leading United States government web site for usability information
- Usability Professionals’ Association – Member-based association dedicated to promoting and advancing the development of usable products, reaching out to people who act as advocates for usability and the user experience.
- Usability Professionals’ Association UK – The UPA United Kingdom branch.
- UsabilityFirst Glossary – a dictionary of usability terms
- Sigchi.org – The Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction, which is a sub-group of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
- Usability & User Experience – The Society for Technical Communication’s usability sub-group.
- Usability Net – The European Union project that provides usability and user centered design resources to promote usability in the EU.
- COI Usability Toolkit – The United Kingdom’s Central Office of Information’s usability toolkit web site, with information and forms and documentation for producing usable public sector web sites.
Usability Can Be Performed Quickly and Inexpensively
A common misconception about usability and usability testing is that it is expensive, and takes a long time to conduct. The reality is usability testing can be conducted quickly, and for low cost.
Traditional methods of usability testing have relied upon special observation and testing rooms, usually with one-way mirrors and video recorders so that observers could witness and tape the usability testing sessions. However, today software enables usability testing and recording to be conducted from most laptops or computers, and from almost anywhere.
Usability testing sessions are recorded in digital form right from the laptop used for testing, for easy editing and playback later. This software is actually cheaper than the rental cost of a traditional usability testing lab.
In addition, the ability to use broadband internet connections with remote testing software makes remote usability testing possible, as well as remote observation of the tests. It is a common practice now for design teams to connect virtually to a remote usability testing session, even though the team may literally be spread around the world.
Savvy usability practitioners can use a variety of quick and cheap (but still effective) techniques to conduct usability tests. For example, by using testing software such as TechSmith’s Morae or Clearleft’s Silverback, a usability practitioner can conduct remote usability tests with participants in 6 or 7 cities across the country, or world, in a day, saving thousands of dollars in travel and lodging expenses and saving a week’s worth of travel time.
As was mentioned above, usability has two important bottom line benefits for a business; it improves conversion and decreases expensive post launch “fixes” if designed as user friendly from inception.
The Return on Investment (ROI) of Usability is simple to calculate from a conversion standpoint, the formula is:
(Annual website revenue x (Improved conversion rate/Current conversion rate)) – Annual website revenue
As an example, assume:
Annual website revenue = $1,000,000
Current conversion rate = 10%
Improved conversion rate = 12%
$1,000,000 x (.12/.10) – $1,000,000 = $200,000 annual ROI
If you were to subtract the one-time cost for the usability project, (let’s make up a number and assume $15,000) then the first year’s ROI is:
$200,000 – $15,000 = $185,000 the first year, and the full $200,000 each year thereafter.
The major difference between spending money on usability improvements for websites and spending money on paid advertising is one of duration. With usability improvements, the one-time expense can deliver increased sales and ROI for the lifetime of the website. However, increasing advertising spend will increase sales short-term, but at the conclusion of the advertising campaign the sales volume will drop back to prior levels.
The Benefits of Usability
Usability improves trust.
Trust is a critical component of sales, whether online or offline. Without trust, online purchase commitments are harder to attain. A website that is easier to use, that makes it easy for a visitor to navigate and find the information they seek will naturally generate trust. Repeat visits will happen more often if the website visitor is confident (i.e. trusts) that they can find what they are looking for.
Usability reduces the cost per sale of a website.
This is another critical fact that is often overlooked by website owners. Usability improvements reduce the cost per sale over the lifetime of the website, paid advertising doesn’t do this. The reason why? The cost per sale of an incremental advertising-generated sale will always be a fixed amount.
For example, paying $10,000 for an advertising campaign that generates an additional 100 incremental sales means a cost per sale of $100. When the advertising campaign stops, so do the incremental sales, and thus the cost per sale is fixed at $100.
However, paying $10,000 for usability improvements that generate incremental sales means the cost per sale will be reduced over time. The first 100 incremental sales generated by usability improvements are $100 per sale, but the next 100, and the 100 after that begin to reduce the usability-generated incremental cost per sale. If 1,000 incremental sales are eventually made from the single usability spend, then the cost per sale is actually $10.
Usability improves the efficiency of a website.
Even for customers who are shopping, and do not buy on their first visit, if the efficiency of the website is improved via usability testing and improvements, then so is the ease-of-use, which equals increased satisfaction.
Increasing the satisfaction of the website will increase the probability that the shopper will return to the website, which will provide additional opportunities for incremental sales. Usability testing of shopping tasks on a website will reveal places where efficiency improvements can be made.
Usability during the design process gives a voice to your customers.
A traditional website design methodology is based on use cases and requirements documents, which normally are written from the “system” or corporate perspective but include little or no end-user requirements. The example being a company that wishes to sell its products on the web will have a list of necessary back-end transactions and requirements that must take place, and will design the website based on the needs of those transactions.
Specifications for website design and functionality then come from what the system needs, with little or no regard to what the end-user needs.
By including usability testing and recommendations at the inception of the design project, the customer’s voice is added. This type of design process is typically referred to as a “user-centered” design approach. This design approach combines the system specifications and use cases with the needs and expectations of the end customer. The customers “voice,” i.e. their expectations and needs, are included.
The end result of this is a website that not only enables the system’s requirements, but incorporates the expectations and needs of the end-user, which provides a more effective and efficient design and thus a better performing website.
The Costs of Web Site Usability
What does usability cost? Usability projects and companies run the gamut from small, simple and low cost (i.e. hundreds of dollars), to large, complex and high cost (tens of thousands of dollars). Some freelancer usability consultants charge based on hours, some based on a project variable such as number of pages reviewed or number of sessions conducted. A typical website usability study can cost several hundred, to several thousand dollars, and can take a matter of a few days to a few weeks.
For some companies, usability is a necessary function and therefore full-time employees handle usability testing and analysis on an on-going basis. For these companies, the cost of usability is predominately associated with the cost to hire and retain qualified usability practitioners.
For companies that seek a usability consultant for a specific usability project, best practices include asking for responses to a Request for Information or Request for Information. It’s wise to also ask colleagues for referrals to consultants they may have used in the past. Additional places to find potential vendors include the Usability Professional’s Association, which provides a listing of members. However, it should be noted that the Usability Professionals Association does not specifically vet members as to their knowledge or experience with conducting usability evaluations and testing.
A web site manager interested in hiring a usability consultant should use a checklist to vet each vendor (see example below). Anyone seeking the services of a usability vendor can easily do this themselves.
Unlike certain professional fields, such as Physicians or Accountants, there is no requirement for education and certification in usability. This means almost anyone can declare themselves a usability practitioner. A smart company seeking usability services will ask for education and related work experience examples from prospective usability vendors.
One organization, Human Factors International, offers usability practitioner certification via an extensive test. Usability practitioners who pass this test are referred to as “Certified Usability Analysts” or CUAs for short. Many universities now offer courses in Human Factors, Usability or Human Computer Interaction and it is becoming more common to see usability practitioners with PhDs, Masters or Bachelors degrees in the field.
Usability is Critical for Web Site Success
Usability has two important bottom-line benefits for a business:
First - Usability can increase website conversion by making websites easier for customers to use
Second – Usability can reduce expensive website “fixes” post launch by designing usable sites from inception
An additional benefit often overlooked by web managers is that usability, unlike paid advertising, reduces the overall cost per sale of a website on a continual basis for the lifetime of the website. Paid advertising cannot do this because paid advertising will have a fixed cost per sale at the conclusion of the campaign.
The cost of usability varies greatly, depending on many factors. Usability projects and companies run the gamut from small, simple and low cost (i.e. hundreds of dollars), to large, complex and high cost (tens of thousands of dollars). Some freelancer usability consultants charge based on hours, some based on a project variable such as number of pages reviewed or number of sessions conducted. A typical website usability study can cost several hundred, to several thousand dollars, and can take a matter of a few days to a few weeks.
Usability can and should be conducted by website owners who are interested in improving the user experience, and thus improving the conversion of the site.