Enhancing the Customer Experience With Usability Research
by Roger Wallace
Usability testing plays an important role in creating a positive customer experience, and the principles applied in this type of research can also be a key part of the development process for many things beyond websites and apps.The importance of using these principles and testing will only increase for marketers and innovators as our fast-paced world accelerates and demands for significant changes in how people interact with each other and their environment. Usability testing can help companies adapt to these changes and enhance innovation opportunities by evaluating how the design of a website—or a new product, or a retail space—fits the needs and desires of its users.
Not Just for Websites and Apps
After years of conducting website and app usability testing that adheres to the heuristics1 developed by Nielsen and Molich, it became apparent that these same rules of thumb (another name for heuristics) could be applied to research conducted on many other types of tools. And most everything can be considered a tool—electronics, appliances, vehicles, grocery products, retail environments, spaces (such as a kitchen or bathroom), a display or aisle in a store, or a drive-thru are examples (going forward, for simplicity, I will just refer to these all as tools). Anything that performs a job or helps us accomplish a task can benefit from usability testing.
When we conduct usability research, our goal is to uncover problems users have when interacting with the tool by observing and learning their behaviors and preferences in order to improve the experience and make it effortless, taking the least amount of time as possible. With usability testing, we can determine and measure how easy it is to learn, how it tolerates and prevents errors, and how satisfied the user is with the tool.
Usability testing has always been a priority for new websites, apps, portals, and online tools. We expect new app development to accelerate in our rapidly changing world as we use technology to adhere to new rules and new requirements intended to shape our behaviors and experience. A good example is a theme park that uses an app that creates a virtual line to avoid large groups gathering in one place so customers can enjoy other attractions while they wait; thus the app is ensuring a positive experience. As customers use an app like this, it would need to be tested within the entertainment venue’s environment to help reveal how the app would be used. And by observing that experience, you would gather valuable insights into the impact of the tool, how it’s used, its gaps or places it is falling short, and areas of improvement to help maintain positive experiences for the customer.
Not Just for New Tools
Usability testing is also needed on tools that have been used for some time. More and more people of various ages and levels of technology experience are now ordering all sorts of products and services from an app and connecting with others. From a recent study for an established website, our goal was to see what could be simplified, and what could be taken away that that would speed up the process even more (a key heuristic principle). For example, we identified the most frequent tasks on the website and observed the shortcuts by advanced users that others could learn from by using common symbols and colors that are intuitive, saving users clicks and time. Usability testing helped to identify how the needs and desires of users have changed, and how it can be streamlined while still being thoughtful of new users.
We follow the heuristics developed by Nielsen and Molich for typical usability testing, and these principles can be grouped into four key factors or themes that can be applied to other tools designed to help someone accomplish a task:
- Communicate clearly. How well does the tool tell you what is happening? Is it the right information at the right time? Do users feel in control? Are visual shortcuts used, such as icons, symbols, or colors?
- Make the tool easy and simple. How easy is it for different user levels to learn? Is it faster than current tools, or does it take less effort (fewer clicks, less energy/movement/thinking)? How effective and efficient is the task relative to our effort? Is the tool design minimal and aesthetically pleasing to the user?
- Make sure it’s flexible and forgiving. Is it designed to help the user avoid making mistakes? Does it allow users to easily recover from mistakes? What workarounds or shortcuts are users performing?
- Match behaviors. How closely does the new tool and its intended use match the normal behaviors and expectations of the user?
When thinking of conducting usability research for a tool, here are a few key considerations to keep in mind:
- Know user needs and behaviors. Understand what users are currently doing and what they need. This could help identify the right tasks before the research, but also helps uncover workarounds and preferences during the interviews.
- Conduct in the right setting. What environment is the tool used in—at home, in the car, walking around a store? If it is a website or app, remote viewing interviews are ideal as respondents get to use their own device in a familiar environment. If the tools are used at home, in a car, or in a store aisle, that’s where you want to be.
- Assign a task or scenarios. What job is to be done? What role is your tool in that job? Sometimes a specific assignment or task is needed, while other times a broad scenario describing a situation is best suited for evaluation.
- Observe the respondent as they think aloud. Observing the user interacting with the tool is a critical part of any usability testing, and this can be done in person or remotely. It should be a live experience to get the most out of the learning. Respondents must also think aloud during the task; a stream-of-consciousness monologue is ideal.
- Test early and often. Having a user’s input at the start and throughout of the development process will improve design and ensure the tool is more consumer friendly.
Beyond the Traditional Usability Research
Even when it isn’t the focus of a project, usability research can play an important role, such as for exploratory research or on-site, ethnographic interviews. Whether the goal is to uncover needs and pain points, explore behaviors, or gather reactions to concepts, there could be opportunities to include a task or observational component to the research. For example, when conducting shop-along research in a retail environment, we give respondents a task and observe them shopping (tagging along like a friend, listening to them think aloud while they shop). How do they use the information on aisles and products? When do they use their smartphone to gather information, or to take pictures? All of these things are considered tools to help users navigate and purchase what is needed. Our goal is to take all of that into consideration with an eye toward usability and identifying ways to enhance the experience using these tools.
With innovation continuing to accelerate at a faster and faster pace, usability principles and testing will play an essential role for the success of a website, app, product or service, or tool. Companies often use filters to help guide the development of new products, and these filters can include the brand’s equities, capabilities, strengths, and so on. But now more than ever, companies should consider usability as an essential part of their new product/service/concept development process. Usability research and its principles will shape the tools of the future and ultimately help us all move through the world more easily, efficiently, happily, and safely.
1 Nielsen, J. (1994a). Enhancing the Explanatory Power of Usability Heuristics. Proc. ACM CHI'94 Conf. (Boston, MA, April 24-28), 152-158.
About the Author
Roger Wallace (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Director, Insights & Innovation, at Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-817-640-6166.
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