Partial results of a usability evaluation for the Coaster Crew fansites, prior to redesign work.

Our Process: Usability consulting

My earlier article about my user experience design process gave definitions of some of the subdisciplines within UX, such as information architecture, interaction design, and visual design.  Usability consulting touches upon all three from a more academic point of view.

I’ve evaluated website usability for over 50 clients, including repeat business regarding different features of their sites for several of them.  In usability consulting, I take a deep-dive approach tailored to each client, to provide more specific feedback.

Usability consultants take some criticism for being critical about every little thing.  While it’s important to identify all of the places where your site can be improved so that your in-house designers (or I) can fix them, I also want to identify areas where I think your site performs well.  As a software developer, I was part of several code reviews of large features that went on for hours and given me a whole slew of things to change, with no positive feedback.  I don’t want to do that to you.

A list of usability consulting recommendations from me could involve very specific recommendations, such as “your checkout button needs to be __% bigger” or “it takes too long to find this button to click on it”.  It could also be much more general feedback like “change the background so that the text is easier to read”.

I would begin this sort of project by researching your target audience and developing personas – like the personas list I create for a new design project.  If you already have personas, I would make sure they address all areas that personas need to address (at minimum: demographics, role, main points, goals, frustrations, and some biographical details).

Then, I would ask you what areas you want me to target most.  I want you to get the best value for your budget in this study, while also making sure that your site gets the best results it can.

From there, I could draft a list of tasks (and/or use a list from you) to go through in using your site.  I’d go through them and also recommend usability tests with a group of customers that represents an accurate cross-section of your actual and/or target audience.  The goal in this is to find out what’s working in your site and what isn’t – for your customers.

At the same time, I would go through your site in much finer detail with a lengthy evaluation checklist.  In this step, I would identify underlying problems that testers might not be able to articulate within the few minutes that they would normally spend on your site – but things that they would still notice nonetheless.  This checklist can give your web developer or development team a very specific list of what they will need to change (or what they need to pay attention to when they receive specifications for a redesign).

Ultimately, I would also give you sketches or wireframes for a suggested redesign.  You could work from this directly, hire me for follow-on work to complete the redesign, or send it to another contractor for him or her to flesh out further.

A word on developers and “the user”

If you hire anyone for a redesign, hire a designer or design company that will employ a user-centered design process – and find out from them what that process is before you hire.  Make sure that they really practice it and don’t treat it like a buzzword to cover up a developer-centered design process.  Look for them to use regular cycles of user testing, rely on other people in your company and audience (rather than starting the project and saying, “Thanks, I’ll get back to you in a few months when the design is done”), design for every possible condition, and take your company’s goals seriously in their designs.  If they don’t do these things, among others, they are not user experience designers.

Many developers talk about “the user” as though they know who this mythical “user” is.  However, they have no contact with, and little understanding of, the people who will actually use your site.  Thus, they may have good intentions but still create a site that doesn’t meet your users’ needs and does cost you sales and customers.  One development book, 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know, has a chapter called “You Are Not The User” – because many developers don’t know that experientially.

A sample task breakdown

Task breakdowns need to be customized to your site or app.  Here is one that I proposed for evaluating the usability of a purchasing path.

Customer Analysis & Personas:

  • Work with you to analyze your site’s customers and target audience.
  • Develop personas with the following, based on your user base:
    • Demographics
    • Scenarios
    • Goals
    • Frustrations
    • Brief biographical details
  • Adapt the personas’ list of tasks into a list of tasks and feedback questions for usability testing (see below).
  • Milestone/Deliverable: Personas spreadsheet.

Usability evaluation based on your personas:

Usability testing

  • Perform a cognitive walkthrough of the personas’ common tasks
  • Recruit usability testers representing each persona category (your budget and schedule determine the group size)
  • Usability testing with recruited testers, using the task list above.
  • Conduct a usability review based on your site and user test feedback
  • Milestone/Deliverable: Results of cognitive walkthrough and summary of usability test findings

Accessibility testing

  • Run an accessibility checker for your site overall or for the part of the site in question
  • Perform a manual accessibility evaluation using Web Content Accessibility Group (WCAG) 2.0 guidelines
  • Milestone/Deliverable: Recommendations for allowing you to appeal to a broader base of users

Purchasing path evaluation

  • Evaluate your site’s process to help users find the products that they want to buy and make recommendations for helping you get more people to add items to their carts
  • Evaluate your checkout process to help you move your users forward in the checkout process and get them to check out
  • Preliminary redesign (mockup) for new purchasing path:
  • Develop quick mockups of your purchasing path.  (These would not be detailed, but could serve as a starting point for follow-on redesign work.)
  • Milestone/Deliverable: New purchasing path mockup images.

Next steps

Our final deliverables would include our usability recommendations and reviews. If a redesign is desired based on the above recommendations, we would then write a proposal for that redesign work.

Further reading

This is a partial list of books that have taught me about usability for applications and the internet.