In an economy where the lines between the brick-and-mortar and digital experience are increasingly blurred, usability has become a differentiating factor that shoppers consider, consciously and subconsciously, when making purchase decisions.
A web search about a potential new purchase, be it a digital camera, a box of cereal, or fishing rod will uncover myriad reviews that include commentary on more than technological specs, nutritional values, etc. Searches will also include commentary on the ease of menu navigation, design elements, taxonomy, and usability. In other words, the overall user experience is as important as the products and service provided.
Unfortunately, organizations often use the wrong methods to understand their users, relying on a series of tests that have little relevance in the real world. A site may test well in the lab, but fail when put into the hands of people trying to use the website under real-life conditions. But many systems are designed with a minimal understanding of the end user or the motivations and challenges they face when shopping. This is why those of us who do this sort of work for a living aren’t surprised when usability is criticized by reviewers.
Part of the reason that good products and brands can’t break through the virtual wall is that unlike a brick-and-mortar experience, where a consumer buys after handling the product, on the web, the consumer experiences usability first – and then makes the decision to buy or search other venues.
It is accessed everywhere and on any number of devices. As such, it has become a natural part of the fabric of getting things done in modern life. Consequently, the methods used to understand web users under real-life conditions deserve special attention. We advocate specifically testing and iterative designing in the field precisely because it allows the design team to develop an interface that speaks both to functional needs and those deep, human issues that defy quantitative processes. The point is simply this; context is often overlooked in the need to get the product out the door. Cheap, fast, good may be the mantra in the current economic climate, but it frequently means the user is and the context in which he/she operates are compromised. We suggest several key elements when designing:
- Don’t just think about who the end user may be, go out and meet them. We often design based on assumptions that are rooted in our own biases. Getting into the lives of the user means uncovering nuances that we might normally overlook.
- Get past the clipboard. Asking questions is pivotal, but knowing the right question to ask is harder than it sounds. The process begins with identifying the various contexts in which a product or UI will be put to use. This may involve taking the product into a participant’s home and having both the participant and other members of the social network use it with all the external stresses going on around them. It may mean performing tasks as bullets fly overhead and sleep deprivation sets in. The point is to define the settings where use will take place, catalog stresses and distractions, and then learn how these stresses impact factors like performance, cognition, and memory.
- Design, build, break, and design again. Before investing the time and effort needed to build and code an interface, use paper prototyping and scenario testing to uncover both functional and conceptual bugs. Even if the product is the most amazing thing since the invention of the wheel, it won’t matter if it doesn’t fit into the cognitive scheme of the shopper.
Of course, usability is not the only factor that contributes to the buying decision, but it can be a deciding factor when a shopper is deciding between one company or brand and another. Not only does it impact their decisions functionally, it shapes their perceptions of the brand and the quality of service they can expect to receive from it.