This article is part of an ongoing series. See the blog entry Delivering Your Enterprise: The ilities for an overall discussion.

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off discussing Usability because, well, I wanted the information to be usable. Like user interface design, it’s one of those topics where everyone considers themselves an expert. While we all have more to learn about Usability than you might expect, there is a certain truth to this. With the Web we vote on a daily basis. We go back to sites that meet our needs and stop visiting sites that don’t. Obviously there are a lot of factors, but given the wealth of web sites available to us, a primary factor is Usability.

In Usability 101: Introduction to Usability, Jakob Nielsen states Usability (also see here) is defined by 5 quality components (plus a 6th he immediately adds):

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?
  • Utility: Does it do what users need?

This is a great set of quality measures, and falls right in with our tendency to use ility-words to define other ilities.

While this is a small set of measures, like anything else there are a lot of practical issues and approaches you should consider during design and implementation. Here are some things to keep in mind, in no particular order:

  • Translation: Does your site speak the language of your users, including growing demographics as well as existing demographics? For instance, if your site is for your intranet, what countries contain your offices? Do you distinguish between Mexican and Argentinean Spanish? If you’ve decided that since you don’t serve France you don’t need a French translation, does that mean you won’t officially support Canada either?
  • Locale and time zone: Do you display dates, numbers, and currency in appropriate formats? Does your system display times according to the user’s time zone?
  • Accessibility: Can people with impaired sight or loss of fine motor control operate your site? Are you required to follow ADA and Section 508 requirements?
  • Function: Does the site provide utility for those unfamiliar with your message? What about experienced users?
  • Content: How easily can the content be updated to cope with changing requirements? Was the “latest news” section updated over five years ago?
  • Multiple devices: Does your system use responsive design to accommodate tablets and phones? Do you use technology (i.e., Flash, older WYSIWYG editors) that doesn’t work on all devices?
  • Design and layout: What’s the most important part of your message to your site users? Is that message easy to find and interact with, for instance, to buy your product?
  • Organization: Is the flow of information on your site easily navigated by both novices and experts? What about different vertical markets, say, accountants and fire fighters – do you present information to both groups in a way that makes sense to them?
  • Response time: Is your site quick, or do people get tired of waiting for tons of JavaScript to download and leave? Do you give your users feedback if an operation takes longer than normal to finish?
  • URLs: Are common entry points into your site marked with an easy to remember (or easy to tell someone else about) URL? Can someone find that location even if they lose all their browser bookmarks?
  • Information density: Do you have too much information – pages of unbroken text that no one will read anyway? Are you trying to teach your website user something they really don’t want to know?
  • Learning styles: People learn in different ways; would an elegant picture make your point better than paragraphs of text? Or would a video be even better?
  • Search: Your customer often gets to your website through a search engine, so why expect them to stop searching once they get to your site?
  • Consistency: Does your system have a consistent look, feel, and organization? Or do pages look radically different because Jill wrote a page on Wednesday and Kyle created one on Thursday?
  • Social: Above and beyond authenticating users via social sites like Facebook, does it make sense for users to easily recommend your products (software, widgets, whatever) to their friends and associates? Post direct and possibly negative feedback for others to see?
  • Cross-domain complexities: Can your developers and infrastructure handle unfamiliar situations, such as more that two sexes for a health care site? What happens when your US-developed software now has to cope with international addresses, such as Swiss cantons and UK postal codes (letters as well as digits)?

I’m sure your organization can come up with an even longer list than this.

There are two keys to addressing these measures of Usability. The first is to prioritize your list and recognize that you can’t get everything done at once. The second key is to acknowledge to yourself and others that the list will probably never be finished. Priorities, management, organizations, and the world all change on a regular basis. And by the time you leave the organization or it’s time for a redesign, some of the items will take on new importance, and others will be totally irrelevant.

We are, after all, talking about delivering your enterprise, a very human-oriented activity. Humans change on a daily basis, whether we like to ignore or celebrate that change. So have fun.

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