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.