Usability testing has become standard fare for most serious web and software development efforts over the last decade or two. The overall intent of testing is to reduce the risk of finding usability errors after product is launched. The typical “over-the-shoulder” method has served this purpose well. With this, stakeholders get a well-prepared report with a prioritized list of issues and a wealth of recommendations. All good  and fine.

An alternative approach is Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (RITE). This is also a lab-based method, but with an important difference to typical tests: the prototype is iteratively evaluated and updated between session. So, you not only identify problems but also test the proposed solutions.

This method was formalized about a decade ago by researchers at Microsoft, most notably Dennis Wixon. In their original paper on the approach, the researchers focus on the key benefit of improving product design:

The goals of the RITE method are to identify and fix as many issues as possible and to verify the effectiveness of these fixes in the shortest possible time.  These goals support the business reason for usability testing, i.e. improving the final product as quickly and efficiently as possible.  The results presented here suggest that at least in the context of its use for the Age of Empires II tutorial, the RITE method was successful in achieving its goals.

What’s more, RITE is fast: the method compresses testing, problem identification and design fixes into a short period. This is good argument to make on any project. Topics such as “Agile Design“ and “Lean UX“ are all the rage these days. With these approaches, designers seek to prototype, test and revise their designs quickly and with little documentation. RITE fits into this canon.

But there’s an additional key benefit that’s not so immediately noticeable: team engagement. RITE tests bring team members and stakeholders together. They then collectively solve design-related problems in real time — right in the observation room. This does NOT mean “design-by-committee,” where designers can easily get out-voted. On the contrary: putting designers, product managers and business stakeholders in the same room with the same stimuli gives designers a stronger voice in shaping the solution.

There are several advantages to this type of heightened team engagement:

  1. Common language: Collaboration during RITE tests gives rise to a common language for describing design problems and their solutions. Whether speaking about a element or overall flow, teams develop a way of describing things, which brings a certain efficiency to subsequent discussions.
  2. Shared references for decision-making: Witnessing users struggle using a product provides a shared reference. When updating the design, this common experience provides a center of gravity for decision making. This shared reference is typically more immediate and longer lasting than typical usability reports, for instance.
  3. User-centered: Perhaps most important, the users are the center of attention during the whole process. Stakeholders and other team members, who may not have regular contact with users, get a chance to view users first hand. This builds empathy for users throughout the team.

In my experience improving the UI design quickly is only half of the benefit of RITE. Equally important is the type of engagement we get from RITE. And ultimately, this is next frontier of UX design: getting the right decision-making processes in an organization that favor the user experience. RITE can help with that.

Inviting different types of stakeholders is important. We strive to include everyone from developers to marketing to project sponsors. Although this makes raises the potential of a “design by committee” effect – which you should guard against – I’ve found it lowers the chance of design decisions being overturned later.

So, consider RITE for projects where it’s appropriate. See the presentation Carola Weller and I gave at Euro IA in Rome 2012 for more:

See also these resources on RITE.

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[1] Medlock, M.C., Wixon, D., Terrano, M., Romero, R., and Fulton, B. (2002). Using the RITE method to improve products: A definition and a case study. Presented at the Usability Professionsals Association 2002, Orlando Florida.

Are you in OZ and want to learn about faceted search, strategic alignment diagrams, IA, navigation and more this April? I’m  delighted to announce that I’ll be giving 2 workshops in Sydney on April 28-29, 2011!

See the workshop website for more information.

Here are some highlights:

WORKSHOP 1: Information Architecture for Strategic Web Design

Thursday 28 April 2011, 9:30-17:00 - This workshop focuses on the conceptual and strategic side of information architecture (IA). Topics include: alignment diagrams, mental models, concept maps, Cores and Paths, information structures and facets.

WORKSHOP 2: Web Navigation Design

Friday 29 April 2011, 9:30-17:00 – This workshop focuses on the nuts and bolts of good navigation design. Topics include principles of web navigation, navigation mechanisms, types of navigation, the scent of information, and faceted navigation.

COST

  • Earlybird (to April 2): AUD 660
  • Regular Price: AUD 759

AUDIENCE

Beginner to intermediate web designers, interaction designers and IAs; usability experts looking to improve web design skills; and project managers, product mangers, and others seeking to better understand web navigation design.

See the registration details page for more information and to sign up.

Significant points and recommendations regarding web navigation from two recent Forrest reports caught my eye.

1. The first is a brief overview of their survey results of 60 web improvement projects across Europe [1]. One of the top areas of concern is good navigation. They write:

Navigation. Users don’t just want good content; they want content that’s easy to find and use. Companies that provided intuitive category names in menus and efficient online processes improved metrics like conversion rates and increased sales.

Note that here their definition of “navigation” is broad, including aspects of the site structure and of search.

(The other two main areas of concern, BTW, are value–or aligning with user needs–and design presentation).

Fixing issues with an existing navigation system or creating an effective one from scratch will have the most positive impact on usability when prioritizing issues to address, according to the report.

2. The second report is a little older–from August 2010. In this document, Forrester gives advice in the form of seven indicators to tell you when a relaunch is needed [2]. One of the indicators is a troubled navigation scheme. From the report:

Navigation system breakdown. Web sites are subject to a cycle of accretion, as contributors add links and content, and erosion, as out-of-date content gets removed. These changes wear site navigation systems down over time. Warning signs include complaints from contributors who say that they can’t find a home for their content; “quick links” tacked onto pages to get users to the critical content they can no longer find through menus; and alternative overlapping menu structures layered onto the site. Until 2009, USPS attempted to meet a diverse set of user needs by adding new categorization schemes to the site over the course of several years. The result was a confusing blend of competing menu structures and shortcuts. In 2009, USPS redesigned its site to address these navigational shortcomings — creating a more streamlined site that features both menu category and task-driven navigation.

They recommend:

Monitor navigation system health. Every site will have some deterioration of its navigation system over time, courtesy of accretion and erosion. To track the course of this natural process, employ analytic tools that check users’ paths through the site. Then at least once per quarter, review critical paths, like those from the home page to customer service, for warning signs like an increase in the number of users who pogo-stick up and down between menus and submenus or a surge in users who start out with menu navigation and then turn to search. If you see a 25% or greater increase in the number of visits during which these redflag behavior patterns occur, take it as an early warning sign of navigation system failure.

Social media, mash-ups, and ajax are all great. But even in the world of Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and beyond, the fundamental problems of navigation and findability in web design still remain.

There’s no silver bullet in designing web navigation. Instead, it’s about your approach to solving the problem and way of thinking about navigation. This is what I put forth in Designing Web Navigation (i.e., a way of thinking, not guidelines), and this is what I teach in my workshops.

If you’d like to find out more, I have two sets of workshops already planned for 2011, in English and in German:

1. In ENGLISH: Part of UX Fest in London, February 9-10
a. Designing Web Navigation
b. Faceted Search & Beyond

2. In GERMAN: Workshops in Hamburg by NetFlow, April 11-12
a. Prinzipien der Informationsarchitektur
b. Elemente des Navigationsdesigns
[details and online registration to come]

See my workshops page on this blog for descriptions of the sessions.

………..

Forrester Reports Referenced

[1] Adele Sage. “Europe 2010: Fixing Known Usability Problems Pays Off,” Forrester Report, November 12, 2010.

[2] Vidya L. Drego. “When To Redesign Your Site: Seven Indicators That It May Be Time For An Online Overhaul,” Forrester Report, August 17, 2010.

(via Usability News): Neil Walker has a brief article over at Net Imperative called The Seven Sins of Usability. The number 1 sin:

Inconsistent and confusing site navigation

He writes:

Effective site navigation is important from the outset of a visitor’s journey so relevant links should be included to take visitors directly to related landing pages from search engines. Marketers need to remember that search is closely linked with the way their site works. Once on a site, visitors do not want to waste time clicking around to find what they want and will leave if they cannot locate the necessary navigation buttons. Do not rely on visitors to use forward and back arrows to navigate their way around as many people prefer to click directly through to the next page so clear signposting is essential for users to find what they are looking for. The key is to have a strong structure that is simple, effective and consistent throughout.

I agree that you shouldn’t rely on the back and forward buttons of the browsers, but I’m not sure about the blanket statement that people “prefer to click directly through to the next page.” Maybe, maybe not. Really, you’re navigation should supporting the optimal movement through your site without relying solely on the back button, but you should also account for the back button in your scheme.

Clear signposts–yes. Strong structure–sure. Consistent, effective navigation–of course. But it’s not that easy to achieve. Designing good navigation remains one of the thorniest parts of web design.

#4 refers to an overuse of industry jargon. This is also something I cover in Designing Web Navigation in Chapter 5, “Labeling Navigation.” Here an excerpt from that chapter:

Speak the Language of the User

The site should speak in terms visitors can understand naturally. It’s easy, however, for site designers to assume that others know the same terms and abbreviations they do. This may not always be the case. There are several aspects of labeling that potentially cause a mismatch in understanding. You should avoid company lingo, technical terminology, clever labels, and abbreviations while using the appropriate tone of voice.

Avoid Company Lingo
Company lingo creeps into web sites all too easily and all too often. Such jargon confuses more than it helps. In rare circumstances, where a brand name has become a household word, for instance, marketing-speak might be acceptable. But if you are inventing new products and words, chances are the “outside world” won’t understand them. And people don’t click on what they don’t understand.

Realistically, however, some products and services have trademarked names. There may even be business requirements to have a term appear in its trademarked form. In these cases, qualifying and enhancing a label with explanatory text would be helpful. Include the jargon if you have to, but explain it for better understanding.

Avoid Technical Terminology
Most visitors to a given site are not as web savvy as those who created it. Not everyone knows what a plug-in is, what a secure server refers to, or even what they can do with a sitemap. If visitors have to choose a bandwidth to view a video clip, will they know how many megabits their Internet connection is? Perhaps not. It’s best to use everyday language for clarity.

Be sure to consider the subject knowledge of your site’s target visitors; technical terminology can be precise and specific to those who do understand it.
For example, internal intranets or B2B sites may assume prerequisite knowledge of the domain, therefore technical terms will not cause problems. Or, a web site for programmers to share and exchange knowledge may require a deep understanding of the subject. On general web sites, however, subject-specific language and technical terminology may confuse, be sure to clarify any uses with simple text as well.

Avoid Clever Labels
Clever, cool, or cute labels are usually self-defeating. It may be more interesting to come up with labels that play on words while designing a site, but it’s not fun for people trying to navigate by them later.

If you feel compelled to use a witty or playful label, be sure to explain it such a way that it is understandable. Provide context or other cues as to what the label should convey. Don’t assume that people will be curious or will explore the category to figure out what a label means.

Both clever labels and abbreviations present particular problems for non-native speakers of the site’s language. Labels that play on words, use slang, or refer to idioms may be completely meaningless to a non-native speaker. Abbreviations may also require prior knowledge that can confuse. If your site has an international reach, be particular careful about the labels you choose in these respects.

Avoid Abbreviations
Abbreviations save space, but can prevent people from scanning for the right keywords quickly. Some visitors may not even understand certain abbreviations at all. Not everyone knows what FAQ, PDF, or RSS mean, for instance.

If you use abbreviations, be sure that visitors will understand them. Intranets and business-to-business sites may be able to use abbreviations without problem if users are domain experts. But on the open Web, abbreviations can stop people in their tracks.

Even so, there may be situations where common abbreviations are OK. The abbreviation “IRS,” the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S., is so pervasive in America that it would be difficult to find an American visiting the site who doesn’t know what IRS stands for. There is a clear shared reference amongst American taxpayers. Links such as Contact IRS and About IRS are fine in this situation. Even the URL uses the abbreviation: http://www.irs.gov.

Note that screen readers often have a hard time with abbreviations. The vocalization software tries to make words out abbreviations. Abbreviations for U.S. state names, for example, may sound like ahhk for AK (Alaska) or wah for WA (Washington). You can use an abbreviation tag to correlate abbreviations with their full meaning.

Use Appropriate Tone of Voice
Labels on an investment banking site generally have a different tone of voice than those on a teen music site. The one is formal and business-like; the other young and modern. It’s important to understand the appropriate tone a certain target audience expects.
Tone of voice also supports brand. Whether or not slang or popular terms are used, for instance, can reflect the values of the organization. How visitors are addressed is also important. Whether you call personal profile My Stuff or Your Personal Information makes a difference. A mismatch in tone of voice to brand may negatively affect credibility as well.

Optimal Usability, a usability consulting company in New Zealand, has a beta version of their new card sort program called Optimal Sort.

On the surface of things it looks to be quite good. I only tried out the online demo so far–the participant’s view of a sorting exercise–and it was very smooth. It’s Flash based with drag-and-drop interaction. Easy to move items around and label boxes and stuff like that.

Once the screen started getting full, however, some of the categories were cut off towards the bottom (on my computer at 1024×768), and it became difficult to move items in and out of those boxes. Otherwise, it’s simple enough for any participant to get the hang of in a matter of seconds. Both open and closed sorts are possible.

In general, one of the advantages of card sort programs is that they can help with analysis. Yet, most of the programs available overcomplicate results with dendograms and clustering and not-so intuitive statistical formats. Though I didn’t see the results from Optimal Sort in the demo, it looks to be cleaner and more straight forward from the screenshots and descriptions.

I particularly liked this claim on their site: “use common sense and experience to spot patterns.” Imagine that: you have to use your intuition as a designer to interpret the results.

The process of administering tests seems to be easy as well. In a SurveyMonkey-like fashion, you can send a link out to participants, and they can then complete the sort on the web. Of course, this leaves out what I consider an important part of card sorts: talking to people about why they grouped things together and observing where they have difficulty grouping things. But the ease of getting people to take part and efficiency this tool offers makes it valuable.

Sam Ng from Optimal Usability tipped me off to this. Thanks, Sam.

They’re still offering free sign registration with the beta version until August. Check it out.

Todd Wilkens has an interesting post over at the Adaptive Path blog entitled Why usability is the path to failure. The ensuing discussion in the comments is just as good.

I must say that I agree with Todd’s take on usability. Sure, it’s important but it’s really a baseline for any functional design. Since everyone ultimately wants to be usable, there’s nothing usability people aren’t doing or saying that competitors aren’t either. It’s not a differentiator.
It kinda reminds me of Michael Porter’s take on corporate strategy. He essentially says that operational effeciency is important, but not strategic. It’s operational. It’s something everyone strives for, even your competitors. Can’t find the full text of Michael Porter’s “What is Strategy?” article free online, so here’s the summary and order form for the article on HBR.

“Michael Porter argues that operational effectiveness, although necessary to superior performance, is not sufficient, because its techniques are easy to imitate. In contrast, the essence of strategy is choosing a unique and valuable position rooted in systems of activities that are much more difficult to match.”

We’ve had SharePoint at work for over a year now. I’ve heard nothing but complaints from colleagues about how to use it. Sure, it might solve technical problems and allow for some flexibility, but the usability of the system stinks.

I’ve had an unusual thing happen while using it: seems the more I use it, the worse I get at it. I feel I’ve actually un-learned how to use it. Is there such thing as a negative learning curve? If so, Microsoft has figured out how to do it.

I’m surprised there isn’t more discussion about how bad it is, particularly the navigation. I’m constantly searching for the right link to click, and often am lead to click the wrong thing. Curiously, most of things you see about SharePoint on the web are about how to implement it, how to customize the CSS, and so forth.

One problem is that it tries to be like Office applications, but it’s web based. Navigating for desktop apps and websites isn’t the same thing. So there seems to be a collision of approaches in SharePoint. Maybe it’s just me, but SharePoint is embarrassingly bad.

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