Understanding the impacts of usability research and design

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Understanding the impacts of usability evaluation and design

Many software and Web site
development managers view usability activities as adding expense and
time to the development process. However, this is not the case if usability
is applied early in the process. When applied early and iteratively,
usability activities with a primary focus on customer requirements can
have tremendous impacts whether you are creating a service for the public
or for internal use.

Our industry experience and similar findings in the literature indicate a number of positive impacts which come in the form of near-term returns on investment. These include:

  • Increased product sales
    due to a better match with the needs of the users and development
    of products or services which are easier to learn and use
  • Increased transactions or purchases – by identifying and providing the right information at the right time so people can easily make the necessary decisions
  • Increased traffic to the site – by making the site’s purpose clearer and helping people navigate to the desired information or functionality quicker
  • Reduced development costs – resulting from a better understanding of what the users really need and developing only what is needed
  • Reduced maintenance costs – by detecting usability problems or mismatches with user expectations and correcting these problems early when they are easiest to fix
  • Reduced development time – by speeding up market introduction, beating the competitors, and gaining acceptance by market influencers and early adopters
  • Retention of customers – by improving the overall customer experience, allowing them to complete their tasks efficiently with high levels of satisfaction

Other impacts are less tangible, such as productivity gains and operational efficiencies, but factor into the total cost of ownership. Over the long-run, these impacts can significantly overshadow the initial return on investment. These include:

  • Increased efficiency/productivity – by helping people find the information they need and engage in transactions more effectively and with fewer errors
  • Increased user satisfaction – by eliminating sources of frustration and eliminating the need to learn and use difficult systems
  • Increased trust – by providing consistent, reliable, and needed information when and where the users need it
  • Decreased support costs – by eliminating sources of user confusion and frustration and better matching user expectations
  • Reduced training/documentation costs – by focusing the design on only those features that are actually needed and valued

Small usability improvements during the development process can reap huge rewards when the impacts are considered across the entire product life cycle and in terms of the user’s total cost of ownership.

In 1999, Nielsen summarized the impact of usability, based on 863 projects, as follows: “The magnitude of usability improvements is usually large. This is not a matter of increasing use by a few percent. It is common for usability efforts to result in a hundred percent or more increase in traffic or sales.

With the range of competition, applications, and new technologies available on the Web today, paired with the increased number of non-technical people accessing the Web, the need to make it faster and easier for people to accomplish their goals is imperative.

These days usability also affects people’s perception of the company or agency, affecting brand value and market share. Software review articles often devote 20-30% or more of their content to ease of learning, ease of use, help and documentation. Also, people are becoming much more demanding about usability because they have experienced companies such as Amazon.com providing them with very usable interfaces which allow the average person to easily manipulate complex databases and engage in commercial transactions from any PC with a Web browser. The Web has extended rich technologies to people that never had access before and they have to be able to figure it out quickly or they will simply leave.

How can you tell if your Web site, application, or service is up to the usability challenge? Check emails or call logs to your support group for common complaints, questions, or themes. Check your Web statistics for high proportions of people leaving your site from navigation or transition pages as opposed to content or destination pages. Do some informal testing yourself. Ask your users or prospective users if they can accomplish the kind of tasks for which your site is designed but, more importantly, also find people motivated to find information or perform their own tasks using your site and see how well those needs are addressed. This should give you a good idea if more usability testing is required.

Remember, the value of usability is not just to impact the vendor or agency’s return on investment, we also need to take into account the ongoing costs of ownership and the significant impact usability can have on long-term productivity and customer success.

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