Why We Strive for Greater Usability

Christina Rickabaugh May 31, 2016

Why a software application’s functionality and usability should go hand in hand.

You can expect a software company to make a program for you that will work as intended. The question is whether or not you want to actually use them. This visceral reaction to your software applications stems from whether they are intuitive and easy, or whether figuring out how to use the program properly takes more time than the process is worth.

Greater usability means making small decisions that affect the overall impact of the software. Should this feature be added here or made into its own page? Do we need to consider if a button should be here or over there? It can seem like an exhausting process to go through that feels like a lot of guesswork. Just because a software designer can find information on the site, though, doesn’t mean it’s intuitive to users.

User experience is easy to forget about when designing for functionality, which is why it’s so easy to fall into this trap. We want to provide the tools that any user might need, assuming that if it’s ever needed, it should be available. Do one in 100 customers have a specific situation you need to address? Great, let’s add some fields! Do some people submit more than two phone numbers? Well, very rarely, but we can put three phone fields there just in case.

Even if the software is streamlined prior to launch, there can be a temptation to add to it in later updates and versions. A typical cycle is the following:

  1. Design and launch.
  2. Add another feature to the report screen.
  3. Evaluate and find another feature that’s wanted.
  4. Add the next feature.
  5. Repeat the process.

After a while, you have a site that can do it all, and that’s a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, this cycle creates an “omni-site” of sorts. It seems like a good idea to have one site that can do anything you need it to do, but it comes at a cost. Suddenly, your initially well-designed page is muddled. Every element of the page is vying for the user’s attention. People only have so much focus and they aren’t going to devote their attention to  figuring out how to do something. When you step back and look at what is now going on, you end up seeing confused users and processes that are taking more time than needed. This sort of problem is troublesome when your employees are affected  and devastating if it impacts your customers. Give the user exactly what they need and don’t give them the ability to find data that is not helpful, is distracting, and only complicates the needed report.

What to put on and what to leave off

Less is more, right? Creating a great, intuitive user interface is as much about what you don’t include on the site as what you do include. Placement of your content can guide a user’s attention from one element to the next in a helpful order. Restricting the amount of content keeps users from getting sidetracked or confused by unnecessary things. Designing a site is as much about shaping and streamlining the flow of data to and from the user as it is about the functionality of the system.

Eliminating points of friction

This flow is our user experience. Let’s imagine this flow as a stream of water, with the elements and links on the site as the stones and embankments that shape and define its flow. Our stream should be both beautiful and useful. It should be engaging and simple. If a stone is interrupting the flow it will create disruptions; if the embankments are too wide, the stream will lose speed. Likewise, if there are too many buttons, filters, and functions on a screen with too few restrictions, you will get a slow, stagnant flow.

It is important to not lose sight of this. You want to make sure that any changes you make are well informed and contributing to our overall goals. Fortunately, there are some great tools out there that help understand how the site is being used. These tools help figure out how to adjust the site for a better experience.

At their core, these tools enable you to gather information about how your site is being used. They fall into two major categories: passive and active data collection.

  • Passive data collection includes methods like tracking statistical information like where the users click, hover their mouse, or how far they scroll on the screen. This data is  generally made available through ‘heat maps’ that clearly display how the site is being used. 
  • Active data collection usually takes the form of surveys or questions that directly ask your users what they think about certain portions of your site.

Practice Makes Perfect

Over time, your crafted experience will get better and better.  Your users will have an easier time doing whatever it is your site helps them do. The site has been carefully thought out and users will be able to do their job and gain more efficiency. As a result, your application, and by extension you, will have become the authority on how to do it right.

Keep your site’s focus tight and centered on a goal. This way you will always have something both beautiful and useful.

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