At Crux Collaborative, we’ve conducted usability tests on countless websites, software products, and mobile applications. While it is true that we learn something from every single usability study, it is also an unfortunate truth that some studies don’t yield the deep insights clients are seeking.
Why? Because when participants struggle to interact with the interface at all, we miss the opportunity to identify deeper insights. And while identifying usability issues is the objective of a usability study, discovering easily avoidable issues is not the best use of your research budget.
Here are five things that you can do before you put your interface in front of users that will take care of the most common usability issues and allow you to make the most of your research time and budget:
1. Pick navigation patterns that makes sense and use them consistently
- Are user interface (UI) mechanisms used consistently throughout your interface? For example, if a link opens a new site on one screen and opens an accordion on another, it becomes more difficult (or impossible) for users to learn the navigation language of your interface.
- Review indicators of location and primary action throughout the experience. Is it clear to users where they are and what they can or should do next?
- Don’t mix your metaphors. Users need consistency. For example, things that look like buttons should trigger actions and links should take users somewhere.
2. Present a clear hierarchy
- Does your interface use clear primary, secondary, and tertiary controls? For example, if you display a ‘Next’, ‘Back’, and ‘Cancel’, do each of those controls have a distinct look and feel? Do they appear in a consistent and predictable order throughout the experience?
- Make sure you use the same conventions throughout your interface where you have more than one action available on a page.
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3. Use stepped processes to simplify forms, enable completion, and provide context and support
- Are there complex or multi-part forms for users to complete? Break them into discreet steps. This helps to minimize mental effort required to understand the information on each screen.
- Provide contextual help content for inputs that may benefit from a bit more explanation.
4. Prioritize your key tasks
- Does your interface present tasks according to their importance to the user? Or does your interface lead with promotional and marketing content that doesn’t pertain to user objectives?
- Are the actions that users will complete regularly (e.g., entering daily water intake into a fitness tracker interface) more prominent than those that are irregular or infrequent (e.g., pairing a new Bluetooth device)?
5. Make sure interactive elements are clear and easy to understand
- Are the things on your site that can be clicked, pressed or otherwise interacted with obvious? Do buttons, links, and other navigation mechanisms use consistent colors? Have you reserved those colors for items that are interactive? Don’t spend time during the usability study watching users try to click on a sub-header because it is the same color as every link on your site.
- Are you using tab or toggle navigation where you have two options? This can be tricky with flat design because the on state is not always clear to users when there are only two items. Using the same on-state treatment you employ elsewhere can help. You can also add an arrow or stroke on the selected tab or toggle to provide a visual indicator that helps users understand which control is active.
These suggestions are not groundbreaking. They are basics of strong interface design. Yet, we encounter these usability issues in the lab regularly. While we are happy to help our clients improve the user experience of their sites by pointing out and suggesting solutions for these issues, we’d rather help you go deeper and get insights about the specifics of your product, site, or application.
Before you take the time to conduct a usability study, take time to step back and evaluate your system (whether it is a website, mobile app or software product) as a whole and ensure that:
- Navigation patterns are consistent,
- UI hierarchy is clear,
- Key tasks are prioritized, and
- Interactive elements are distinct from non-interactive elements.
Once these items are addressed, usability testing can uncover deeper issues such as
- Whether the mental model of your users matches the order in which interface elements are presented
- Which tasks most frequently cause users to stop because they are confused
- How to better present the key data so that users can spot, scan, and understand it more effectively
You may still discover that users don’t understand a particular UI element, but you’ll know it’s not because a basic user experience design principle was ignored. By addressing them prior to the study, you’ll get much more value by maximizing the quality of insights from the research.
We’d love to talk about how to make the most of your user research budget, please contact us.
By Rebecca Grazzini
Senior User Experience Specialist
Rebecca has worked on user experiences in a variety of industries including online education, health care, financial services, tourism, energy, and agriculture. She has spent much of her career developing complex transactional experiences under strict regulatory constraints.View Rebecca's Bio