Usability Engineering and Evaluation: Achieving Efficiency in a User-Centered World

The case of Snapchat’s bad usability has been a topic of discussion for years. The meteoric rise of the photo-sharing app is amazing since it’s as difficult to use as it is popular. How could the app infamous for its steep learning curve and vague swiping motions surpass Twitter in user base?

Opinions are divided. Some think that the lack of expectations allowed teens, that essential demographic, to decide for themselves how to use the app. Or maybe the element of discovery resulted in better user engagement. Either way, the Snapchat case is more the exception than the rule, a lucky coincidence that probably shouldn’t be depended on to deliver the same result in a different situation.

Regardless of the effort your team puts into the product, the end users are the ones who get to decide how successful it will be.

Usability Engineering in a Nutshell

To understand why Snapchat’s usability has been so vigorously discussed by UX advocates, we first should define the difference between usability and user experience.

Usability means evaluating users’ needs and requirements to create a product that will be easy and comfortable to operate. According to Jakob Nielsen — the man often called “the king of usability” — the main components of usability are: learnability, efficiency, memorability, handling errors, and satisfaction.

User experience spreads beyond simple understanding and complying to a user’s desire. It often goes along with interactive design, engineering, marketing, and user interface.

However, there’s a third term that describes the methods of identifying usability problems and offering valuable recommendations. Usability engineering is a practice aimed at creating highly effective and user-friendly software products using evaluation methods.

So, what is usability engineering exactly? Good usability specialists work with care for customers in mind and advocate for making user experience as smooth and efficient as possible. It usually means:

An important portion of work that goes into usability revolves around accessible and inclusive design, a topic we’ve previously covered in detail in our blog.

But evidently, the usability evaluation is one of the main and most impactful tasks a usability engineer will have to undertake. Let’s explore some of the methods.

Usability Evaluation Methods

Every convenient design is user-centered. Building user-centered design implies a series of design techniques focused on understanding what users need, experience, and value. You should consider how your product will be perceived by a customer in the early stages of product development. Here’s how you can do it.

Usability testing

This practice is the simplest one yet extremely effective. During a usability test participants are asked to complete typical tasks using the product tested. Moderators observe, listen, and take notes. An effective test, one that will help you get the most insight in the shortest amount of time, requires preparation.

The method also involves a wide range of possible techniques: You can do it remotely or on site, both with experts and casual participants and with any budget. When conducting usability testing, don’t give users tips or ask leading questions.

Heuristic evaluation

Heuristic evaluation means that usability experts review your product and compare it to the accepted usability principles. The best-known list of principles was offered by Nielsen in 1994. Its universality can be even applied to developing chatbot interfaces.

Heuristic evaluation is a simple and low-cost way to assess your current software from a user-centered standpoint

Foursquare not only gives users a wide range of options but also inspires to try something new

Card sorting

To evaluate the informational architecture of your product, use card sorting. With this method, the target audience is offered an opportunity to categorize content in the most logical and comfortable way using cards. By providing your audience with a series of topics, you will determine how well users understand the connections between the topics and which ones they prioritize.

You can conduct card sorting both face-to-face with a group of users or remotely, via online sorting software. However, the latter won’t allow you to witness the immediate reaction or follow a user’s thought process.

Card sorting can be performed in two different ways:

First click testing

According to a study by web usability experts Cari Wolfson and Bob Bailey, users are twice as likely to make a target action if the first click was correct. It means that the first click users make directly impacts their journey and eventually conversion.

During a first click, test users are asked to complete a task on a functioning site or a prototype without mentioning that their first click will be observed. When applying the first click testing, make sure that you prepare a problem for your users to solve to evoke a natural reaction from them. Instead of simply asking to book a hotel room, describe a real-life situation, such as “You’re looking for a two-bed accommodation for your August trip to Italy with a friend.”

Some usability problems first click testing helps identify:

Record the time it takes for a user to make a first click. This number mostly depends on the type of your site (whether it’s an e-commerce or informational portal) and if users reached the needed page right away. According to AltexSoft UX experts, the goal is to catch their attention during the first 2–3 seconds and if they are still feeling lost after that period, there must be a navigation problem. Many first click testing software tools allow for precise time and cursor recording thus simplifying a usability engineer’s manual effort.

Chalkmark is one of usability testing online tools for testing wireframes and interfaces

Usability Engineering: Practical Tips Based on Gathered Data

The results of usability evaluation directly impact the practical recommendation that usability specialists will offer. After the data (both quantitative and qualitative) is gathered, and you are aware of all weak points, it’s time to apply usability engineering principles to suggest and implement improvements.

Remove redundant features

During an evaluation, you may notice which components of an interface are ignored by the participants, no matter how useful they seemed to you at the planning phase. Just because some elements were included in your initial list of functions, don’t be afraid to get rid of them if they don’t deliver any value.

Maximize readability

The F-scan pattern that we discussed in our article on the recent UX trends is always relevant. It signifies that most users in Western countries are reading content by following two horizontal and one vertical stripe. Display the focal interface elements so that they’re easy to notice at one glance.

To help users grasp more information in an F pattern, divide content into bullets, paragraphs, or dilute it with images

Prioritize actions, not words

Pay attention to how users interact with the interface instead of the preferences they are voicing. Keep in mind that they’re not here to dictate the changes but rather to help you better understand how to build a comfortable experience based on your observations.

Focus on a practical rather than emotional response

When the audience is impressed by your design, it’s easy to overlook (for both you and them) if it’s in fact practical and usable. If it’s important for you to achieve the wow effect, tick the checkmark and continue evaluating to be sure this design still serves its purpose and how easy it is to navigate.

Don’t ignore the help function

In the best-case scenario, users will never want to click a question mark button in the corner of the screen. However, it’s not realistic to expect from customers a complete understanding of your seemingly minimalistic design. At the evaluation stage, test to see if users receive any actional tips from your help section and be sure to include even the most trivial answers.

Connect with your audience on a deeper level

Sometimes, a nice UX can compensate for occasional usability mishaps. Perhaps, your app doesn’t offer shortcuts for the most used features, but you send out frequent and personalized notifications and your layout simply looks pleasant. When you establish an emotional connection with users, they will be more patient with inconveniences and will gladly wait for updates.

There’s no UX without usability

Designers are not users. What will seem of extreme importance to them may never be used by the real customers. And vice versa — a user can still struggle with the design that your team has been working on for months. To learn more about your audience, conserve resources, and be sure that the product you release will work out, embrace usability engineering as a regular practice.

For an organization with a wide range of products and constant major updates, a usability engineering team is a must. However, it doesn’t mean that your single app can succeed without at least one usability expert in a UX department. As luck would have it, you don’t need a full-function lab to run tests — a conference room and a notepad are enough to observe and draw insights from users.

Being a Technology & Solution Consulting company, AltexSoft co-builds technology products to help companies accelerate growth.