Usability: Think in terms of scenarios

When you design a user interface, it helps to think in terms of the scenarios instead of tasks. A task is simply a major or minor event that needs to be accomplished. It’s important, but it doesn’t define the goals and circumstances that guide the user. That’s why it is important to think in terms of scenarios.

A user scenario involves more than just task that is to be accomplished. Scenarios can be general or detailed but they answer such questions as:

  • What are the overall goals of the user?
  • How will the user define success?
  • What level of skill, experience and authority does the user have?
  • Where will the user be when they access the product?
  • What time constraints might the user be under?
  • What influence will stakeholders besides the user have over the final outcome?

These are just a few of the possible considerations that can go into a scenario. The goal is to think in terms of the user instead of in terms of the product and the tasks.

Usability: Surfing for User Comments

One of the benefits of the web is that somewhere in the Internet, someone is talking about you, or at least a competitor. This makes it easy to get feedback. You won’t be able to get active comments on your developing interface, but you can read comments about existing products and competitors. Some sites, such as, aggregate user reviews right there with the product listings. In other cases you may need to look at forums, blogs, tweets, or anything else you can get your search engine to find.

Users will not only be commenting on your product, they’ll be pointing out the shortcomings of your competitors as well. Look for the following:

  • Feedback that discusses problems with your product or past products.
  • Feedback about your competition, especially about their weaknesses.
  • Discussion of unmet needs.
  • Descriptions of how people use your product or its competitors.

Don’t waste time getting upset by mean comments about your product. Look for concrete complaints that you can do something about. Your goal is to increase usability and customer satisfaction.

Usability: Brainstorming User Issues

Designing a good user interface on a tight budget is not an easy task. One of the things that quickly gets dropped is usability, and especially user testing. Ideally, any new interface should be deigned with input from and testing by potential users. Testing and input not only eliminate minor process issues, it also helps you clarify your whole project.

When there is little or no budget for user testing, there are some steps you can take to increase usability. One of these is to brainstorm about user issues and solutions. Get your design group together, along with anyone you can think of who might represent a user or at least a fresh perspective. Once everyone is together, spend the meeting generating a list of the problems a user might have with your proposed (or existing) product.

Some items to discuss are:

  • Process issues (steps to be taken, input methods)
  • Visualization issues (Look and feel, attractiveness, prioritization of tasks)
  • User goals (What the user gets, what the user is trying to accomplish, what the results are used for)
  • Possible user surprises (Events that a user might not expect or might be confused by)
  • Information / help points (Places where you might need to include extra information or help)
  • Expert / casual / novice user needs (Shortcuts, explanations, toolsets)

One you have a good list of the issues, discuss what you can do to eliminate as many of them as possible. The earlier you are in the planning stage when you address these issues, the less painful it will be to make changes.

Usability: People really don’t like surprises

People don’t like surprises. They especially don’t like to be surprised when they click on a link. A click surprise occurse whenever you click on a link and get something other than what you were expecting. In the e-commerce world this happens far too often.

  • You click on an item you want to buy but instead get routed to a page full of different merchandise.
  • You click on on “more information” and get routed to a sales pitch or a form.
  • You click on on the OK button to complete a transaction, only to be asked to give additional information.
  • You click on on a story title, only to be taken to a huge selection of sponsored stories, of which your original selection is only one choice.
  • You click on a video that claims to answer an interesting question, but soon derails into a sales pitch.

Click surprise isn’t just limited to e-commerce sites. Any time you give a customer, visitor or user something other than what they expected, that’s click surprise. If the user clicks on a headline that promises more information than it delivers, that’s click surprise. If the user clicks on a link (on site or off) and gets an error, that’s click surprise. Each time it happens, you run the risk of alienating the user.

The solution is simple. Deliver what the user expects. Always be honest. If you think you have to fool the user to get a sale, then you are probably selling the wrong thing.

Usability: Do you want the data or the conversion?

Over at Usability Counts they ran an article a while back about how Expedia generated $12 million a year in additional income just by eliminating a single, optional field from their form. The field was confusing to customers and resulted in many people abandoning their transaction right at the end of the process, just because Expedia wanted a little extra information and people didn’t know what to put there. Expedia might have looked for ways to make the request clearer, but instead they took the smarter step of just eliminating the field entirely. The extra information was a nice to have, the sale was the goal.

This struck a chord with me because I recently started an email account just for coupons, especially restaurant coupons. I then began going to the sites of all the restaurants I like and joining their email clubs. Thanks to Google, I can fill out most of a form automatically and the process goes quickly. The problem comes when a web site asks for more information than is necessary or expected.

All I want is for the site to email me their coupons so that I can use them for the occasional night out. I believe this is all that most people want when they sign up for a restaurant’s email list. We don’t want them to send us text updates. We don’t want them to call us. We certainly don’t want to register as a user on their site and give them a user name and password that we’ll never remember. Unfortunately, many restaurant web sites want us to do all of these things. It’s a waste of our time, and an abuse of our interest in them. I have to wonder how many potential customers give up when they see these fields.

The key, when you are trying to convert a lead, is to make it as easy as possible for the lead to say yes. That’s why I appreciated one site that simply asked for my name and my email address. That’s all they needed and I was happy to give it to them. A few seconds later, they emailed me a coupon and I used it the next day. That, my friends, is usability.