Discount Usability 30 Years

At a user interface conference in 1989, I presented a paper titled Usability Engineering at a discount that was not very popular at the time because most U.S. professionals wanted to promote rigid and Thukral methodology. For sure.

They had a point because back then we knew people needed to prove ourselves to the hard core developers who dominated the computer business. Unfortunately, insisting on very thorough usability work meant that most projects could not afford to do any usability work. So instead of doing great in-depth user research, most products were based on zero user insight. And it showed because most software was just terrible. Back then, my main claim in 1989 was that something is better than nothing, that we can get a lot of important user insights from very quick and cheap studies. My recommendation for design projects now is the same as it was back then. Three simple ideas can give you a lot of bang for the buck and ensure a good base level of user experience quality. The three recommendations are first contact simple usability studies with five users. Advanced studies have their place, but simple studies will identify that big usability problems that make users give your website or just stop using your app. Simple studies are easier to learn with a one day course at the U.S. conference on how to do them. And five test users are enough to uncover most of the big flaws in a design. If you have budget to test more users, a great but allocate those test users across many small studies instead of a few big ones so you can test more design iterations. The second recommendation is to use simple user interface prototypes to get early feedback on your design ideas. Usually paper prototypes are the best and fastest method. Third, use juristic evaluation to clean up user interfaces between test rounds such as you don’t kind of waste test users on finding design problems that violate usability principles that we’ve known for decades. Of course, there are many more UX methods than just these three ideas, and the more advanced methods do give you more advanced insights, particularly for more complex design problems.

But start with the cheap and simple usability methods, and you can drive substantial improvements in the user experience from very little budget.

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