Eight Website Usability Terms you Should Become Familiar With

The familiarity will help your overall website design

Having just conducted a mini-usability test this week with a very confused customer, I have website usability on the brain. We have some tests scheduled for the end of September that I just cannot wait another second for!

As many of you know, website usability is a hot issue in Web development, most likely because, over the past decade, so many websites were launched without any user testing at all, leaving the Web littered with confusing and unusable interfaces.

Usability testing is by far the most effective way to develop usable websites, but what kind of testing, when should you test and at what cost? Since the type of testing depends on where you are in the design life-cycle, I thought I’d brief you on eight usability terms that our usability expert Roxanne O’Connell has taught us.

As Roxanne points out, it’s better to test at several points in the development cycle: in the design, development, and deployment phases as well as whenever you plan to make changes to the interface or a critical process.

Expert review – an experienced usability professional evaluates a website to uncover aspects of the design that may pose problems for users.

Heuristic evaluation – an assessment of the usability of a design, based on established design principles, or “heuristics”. Can be conducted by non-professionals when supervised by an experienced professional.

Low—and high—fidelity prototypes – low-fidelity prototypes are usually paper-and-pencil sketches. Starting with low-fidelity prototyping, instead of jumping into designing online, gives the team a chance to look at many options inexpensively. Usability testing with paper prototypes is quite effective and generally stimulates many ideas from users, because it is obvious the system isn’t yet complete. The next phase of design then iterates to high-fidelity prototypes, which typically are developed in a higher “resolution” media such as an online format and express additional design and functional detail.

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Paper prototype – a mockup of the user interface using paper, and sometimes cardboard (for PDA, phone and other three dimensional interfaces). The visual fidelity and range of interaction is low, however, as Carolyn Snyder states, “the Computer (the person playing the role of the computer in the test or walk-through) can gracefully prevent, detect, or explain any combination of choices that didn’t make sense. So paper prototypes often have good depth.”

Questionnaires – an indirect method for assessing usability but they are useful for studying how end users use the system and their preferred features. They require experience to design and interpret. User’s feedback about what they do at your website cannot be taken at face value. User’s actual behavior observed in user tests should carry more weight than users’ claims of what they think they do.

Think aloud – involves having an end user continuously thinking out loud while using the website or product to complete a task. Test users verbalize their thoughts giving us an understanding of how they view the system. This helps us understand their mental models and makes it easier to identify any user misconceptions. (Holzinger, 2005)

Usability study – a series of user tests that are conducted by a team comprised of a user, facilitator, test monitor, and observers. Tests are done on a number of task scenarios and are usually videotaped. Every effort is made to ensure that user behaviors are unbiased. This involves the use of either a stationary or portable “lab”, equipment similar to the user’s natural environment and props that simulate the user’s typical experience.

Walk-through – in a walk-through, the design team and users meet to step through a design concept and evaluate how well it works with actual tasks. Various walk-through techniques can be used to evaluate early concepts and designs. Sometimes referred to as a “cognitive walk-through.”

For more information on usability testing and website design, please join us at the Mequoda Summit.


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