Dispelling Usability MythsSubmitted by admin on Wed, 10/01/2003 - 04:46 Posted in
Usability seems like it was just born a few years ago. Nowadays, the terms "user experience", "ease of use" and "Jakob Nielsen" are common language in the design and project planning rooms of companies big and small across the United States. In corporate Britain, usability has picked up tremendously in the last two years with many new consultancies springing out of British universities. In Italy, France, Germany and Japan usability is becoming a hot item.
Usability in fact has been around as a field since the late 1940's and more formally since the early 1960's when the first interfaces were born at Xerox PARC. For all it's "oldness" usability is a relatively obscure academic field situated between Computer Science, Psychology, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Anthropology and others in the multidisciplinary field of Cognitive Science.
What do most people know about usability?
Most people seem to know that usability is about making your website easy to use, user-friendly and intuitive. Many people seem to think usability can be done by a webmaster, an ad agency, a web boutique, or the internal savvy English major.
Typical Usability Myths
Myth 1: "Usability is just someone's opinion". Did you ever hear the expression "reality is an opinion"? Actually, good usability consultants should be able to reference their findings and recommendations based on known issues or academic and/or third party studies. Usability should not be an opinion, but rather an informed interpretation and analysis of issues based on solid research.
Myth 2: "It's too late in the process to do usability or we can do after launch". It's never too late to learn about how your users will interact with the system. If you don't test your software or website, your users will anyway. Would you rather find out first or have them find the issues for you and jam customer support lines? Actually, it is true that you can do more about usability fixes and user experience enhancements if you do research before launches.
Myth 3: "Professional usability costs too much". If $5,000-$25,000 is too much for you, then yes. When you have a qualified and seasoned usability professional evaluate your website, gather user data or help you usability test the site, you are paying for the same service as having a home inspector look at a house before you buy it or a lawyer review contracts before you sign them. Professional services are expensive, but when you think what it costs to develop a website usability is typical only 3%-10% of the total cost.
Myth 4: "Anybody can test a site with their mother, brother, colleague". If your target audience is your mother or your colleague in the next cube then it might be good feedback. Interest, appeal and motivation is contextual to the needs and desires of your specific audience. Be careful getting opinions from random individuals who might give you opinions and not behavioral observation (as is the outcome of usability research).
Myth 5: "You can't possibly capture user data for all our segments". Segmentation is a market research approach to research. It is actually possible to capture a good cross section of your user population based on behavioral criteria or psychographics. When you think of your users not by segment but by role, you can cluster like users more easily.
Myth 6: "User studies can be conducted using focus groups". There seems to be more awareness of the issue of using focus groups to get usability requirements. It is a poor use of funds to use focus groups (an opinion driven research technique) to get behavioral data such as determining navigation 'ease of use'. If you want usability feedback you need to use a behavior driven research technique (usability testing).
Myth 7: "Usability is a look and feel issue". Usability touches on graphic design elements but should not be confused with graphic design. Graphic design comes from the arts. Usability comes from the sciences. A good usability professional will elegantly blend graphic (aesthetic) and usability (cognitive) findings.
Myth 8: "Usability is just like Quality Assurance (QA)". Usability differs radically from QA. QA is about finding what does not work literally with the database or screen widgets. For example, QA will find: Dropdown menu does not populate data; Usability will find: User expects to be able to download a list of items on the screen instead. Usability is not QA.
Myth 9: "Usability has an unproven ROI". Studies into the return on investment (ROI) of usability projects are numerous and well known in the usability community. Many people do not know that. ROI of usability projects is typically in the 200%-400% area. See: Cost Justifying Usability (book)
Myth 10: "Usability testing is outdated and new techniques are better".This is a convenient sales story concocted by certain companies in the new online usability solutions arena. Convenient beliefs have been invented to support the "new technique is better myth" such as "Users must be tested in their natural setting". Actually, testing environment is independent. However when conducting field studies or task analysis, user setting is everything.
The question you should ask yourself is, "Do I want to use a methodology that is proprietary or has aspects that are "closed doors", or do I want to use a methodology that is grounded in 20 years of corporate industry-wide use?"
For more usability myths check out this great article:
"The Persistence of Usability Myths" by John Knight and Marie Jefsioutine