Sunday, May 09, 2010

Getting Feedback on Usability

It's common for people at all levels of a company, and in all company departments, to comment on the usability of the product or company web site and give suggestions on how to improve it.

Why? Here's a clue. I wrote in late 2005 that:
Most people, including executives, consider much of marketing to be common sense. We're all consumers, so we all know how we respond to products, names, logos, advertisements, and PR, right? So we're all experts on what works in marketing, no?
Wrong. See the original blog entry to learn why marketing is not common sense.

The same principle applies to usability. In playing the role of consumer in many aspects of our lives, we use products and web sites, and we know which ones are usable - and perhaps even what makes them usable - right?

Wrong. Just as marketing isn't common sense, usability isn't common sense, and for the same reasons.

Nonetheless, debates over usability and strategies for redesign can get quite contentious and time consuming. Even if a company is smart enough to have skilled interaction designers and user interface designers, the designers are often caught in the middle, but their expertise ignored.

There is a way of resolving these questions: a product manager frames the usability metrics and conducts tests on representative users to measure the usability of the current and proposed designs.

Unfortunately, many team members still have a bit of "overconfidence" in their ability to conduct this testing themselves. For example, a favorite idea of executives is to form a focus group, ask members of the group questions about the designs, and possibly ask them for design suggestions. Good product managers and usability experts know this approach is flawed.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells us why usability testing is not as straightforward as the average company employee or executive may think:
The way to get user data boils down to the basic rules of usability:
  • Watch what people actually do.
  • Do not believe what people say they do.
  • Definitely don't believe what people predict they may do in the future.
Good product managers know how to elicit, gather, and interpret usability feedback, because by definition they know how to facilitate market input and draw appropriate conclusions from it.