How to Get Inside Your User’s Mind and Make Software Usable

“We didn’t invent a new bicycle,” writes Steve Krug, in his bestselling book on usability, Don’t Make Me Think.

No matter how innovative a website is, it won’t matter if it doesn’t do what the user needs. Achieving maximum usability is the key to keeping your users happy and coming back for more.

Gartner analysts say it best: “You can ask anyone if they like your content, your layout, your navigation, or even your “Web Information Architecture” (doesn’t that sound fancy), but it is all irrelevant if your visitor can not accomplish their goal when visiting your site.”

Here are three ways of getting inside your users’ minds and improving your site’s usability:

1. Keep it Obvious

Well yes of course that sounds like first day stuff. Surprisingly though few websites make it easy for users to find what they need quickly. This boils down to intuitiveness. Can your users figure out where to go without thinking too hard? It should be an almost unconscious thought process. Users aren’t there to read – they want to scan the highlights, find what they need and move on. Simplicity in navigation is a key factor in usability.

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2. Clean, Clear Design

Stemming from #1 is the need for clean, clear design. First and foremost, avoid what has been called ‘The Paradox of Choice’, which is what happens when somebody is faced with too many options. Oftentimes a customer will end up not making a decision and leaving or just choosing something already familiar. Put the most important options front and center, where they can be easily found, while removing unnecessary information (which is just as important as providing good information).

Clear and simple visuals can help you organize content so that users can quickly scan, compare and synthesize. If you have a site with lots of information, make sure that the search bar is prominently displayed on every page so that users can easily get to what they need without having to dig.

3. Testing

Perhaps the most important part of improving the usability of your website is simply to test it. In 2000 Jakob Nielsen of the Neilson Norman Group wrote that only 3-5 participants are necessary for a valuable usability test and that the gained insight diminishes rapidly after the fifth. While this might seem like a small sample, this is enough to discover many of your site’s major issues, and since testing is something that should be an ongoing process, you’ll have ample opportunity to find the others.

Gartner Analysts stress the need for testing: “And usability testing closes the loop by actually letting you see and hear what buyers really want and expect. I strongly believe no new Web site (or major change) should be launched without it.”

Study design is important. Some key questions to keep in mind when preparing a study are about duration, participants and method. Increasingly, people are turning to A/B testing (also known as split testing), a website optimization technique that allows you to divide your site visitors in half, with one set seeing one version of your site and the other group seeing a different one.

Watching the web analytics will show you which version is more successful in helping your users to achieve what both you and they want. This type of testing is especially useful when you want to compare how two different versions of your site appeal to users, or when you have changed an element and want to see how that impacts the overall usability. While not the most appropriate testing technique in every situation, A/B testing is definitely an underrated method for getting the most out of your site.

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Jessica Miller
Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.
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