User-Centred Design - Seven Steps
Whenever we interact with technology we do so through an interface of some description. We have all experienced examples of both good and bad interface design. Try and think of an encounter you may have had with a poorly designed interface (consider setting the VCR timer). It can be frustrating, time-consuming and not an experience you would like to repeat. For these reasons, businesses are realising that poorly designed interfaces cost money.
Usability and user-centred design (UCD) is about letting the needs of your users drive the design of your interactive products. Good usability creates transparency between your users and what they are trying to achieve. It allows them to focus on their tasks without the technology becoming another hurdle to overcome. There are many benefits, yet UCD is still not given the full attention it should be in the development life-cycle of products - particularly in the software arena.
Components of usability
Usability means more than just making your interactive product look pretty. The visual design, or they way the product looks is only one component of a successful user interface. Information design and Interaction design are just as important.
Fig 1: The three components of screen and page design
What is usability testing and why do it?
Usability Testing is a technique that brings the involvement of the people who matter most to the design of your product: your target users.
All too often in product design, the experience of users is neglected until after key design decisions are 'set in concrete'. Missed opportunities for early user involvement mean that either the product fails to be as easy to use (and therefore as attractive to users) as it should be, or that unnecessary extra costs are added later in development in correcting usability problems.
Usability testing can take place at various stages of product development, using increasingly sophisticated mock-ups and prototypes as the design advances. We emphasise, however, the need to optimise value for money by getting users involved at the earliest design stages, where changes can be made easily and cheaply. In this way their positive influence on the design can be brought to bear in the most cost-effective way.
Your target users
At Stamford, we work with you to identify the key characteristics of the people for whom your product is targeted and to select users with these characteristics to take part in Usability Testing. We then work with you to develop the types of scenarios in which the product will be used for real. (An example from internet banking might be transferring funds from a savings to a current account to top up the balance.)
Using simple prototypes that tangibly convey the 'look and feel' of the product we ask users to complete the sorts of tasks they would do in the context of the scenarios we've developed (what we test can vary from early paper mock-ups of a website or application to fully functioning software or live websites).
We observe your users (recording our observations), we ask them specific questions about key aspects of the design and we ask them to talk their way through the tasks, telling us about what they like and what they don't like about the design.
This yields a wealth of information that we feed back to you, so that you can improve the usability of your product.
Can I do it myself?
Some people think that designing a good user experience is common sense and anyone can do it. Whilst we encourage our customers to get involved in the design process and we promote knowledge transfer, good usability design requires a great deal of knowledge and experience. We do not encourage you to go it alone. Many great designs go unnoticed by their users (transparency of the interface is what good design strives for). When an interface gets noticed, it's often because it's poor. Maybe that's why good interfaces look intuitive and everyone imagines they could design them!