Usability as a Design Consideration

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Designers understand the importance of utility Sometimes it can be difficult to explain to non-designers, such as marketing managers, why utility is more important than aesthetics.

That’s one of the biggest challenges every designer faces when designing user interfaces for software and websites, where the work is subject to approval from higher level marketing executives.

Of course it is important to try and get the best looking result that you can, but not if it means getting in the way of what the user wants to achieve when visiting your website or using software designed by you.

Usability is a dynamic field, the rules are not static

There are some old usability rules that people are clinging to that may no longer be relevant, because the majority of people are now either using wide screen monitors or mobile devices. Some users also have multiple monitors attached to a single device.

We need to think about how to create acceptable outcomes for all these different display types. If anyone feels like they’ve been left out, overlooked, or ignored, you can be certain it will generate complaints. This looks bad for you as a designer, even if neglecting to support a certain display type wasn’t your decision.

Accessibility is extremely important as well

The one thing that’s even worse than somebody feeling excluded is somebody feeling that they’ve been discriminated against.

Because accessibility is so easy to include these days, there’s really no excuse not to do it. Some managers may despair at the additional time spent catering to a “fringe group” that they don’t see any value in supporting.

When you are faced with that attitude, it’s worth pointing out that approximately 10 percent of the population has a disability. Even if the manager can’t see the value of accessibility from simply a fairness point of view, they should at least understand the economic impact of alienating up to 10 percent of the potential market.

Taking the time to do things properly will be noticed and appreciated by those who benefit from you doing so. They may even talk about it on social media, which can yield valuable PR points for the company.

Naturally the opposite is also a possibility. If you blatantly neglect accessibility and it makes the wrong person angry, their social media diatribe may well have solid repercussions for you. If a competitor is providing better accessibility than you are, they may gain some of the market share that may otherwise have gone to you.

Aim for simplicity

When it comes to GUI design, it seems many people are tempted to show off how complex they can make the design, believing people will be impressed by this. Produce something special, and initially they may really be impressed.

It becomes a problem when that initial good impression is squandered due to poor usability. The user becomes frustrated and is actually likely to be more angry than if you hadn’t created a strong first impression.

This is because your fancy visual extravaganza raised their expectations, and then you failed to deliver on the promise. A bit like the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Expending the maximum amount of the project time and budget on developing good usability is always the safest policy. At the heart of good usability design is simplicity.

Make everything easy for the user, and they won’t become frustrated. If they don’t become frustrated, they won’t give up on your site and look for solutions elsewhere.

Conventions exist for a reason

Everyone wants to express some creative originality, but be careful when your desire for originality begins to cross over well-established conventions. If you suddenly flip the rules, it can lead to confusion, and confusion is not a desirable outcome.

In no way does that mean you should follow the herd. Trends and fads can be risky to follow. Also it’s not sensible to follow a trend that you didn’t set. Being perceived as a follower is not a good perception.

What you do need to do is be aware of what long standing conventions exist and try to not digress too far from those. These conventions have created an expectation for users, and it’s crucial to understand that when reality does not meet expectation, the usual result is disappointment or bewilderment.

Never make your users do any kind of thinking

This is actually the logical conclusion of using conventions and keeping things simple. You do all the thinking so the user doesn’t have to.

Why is it bad if the user is forced to think? Because it slows things down and breaks immersion in whatever it is they are doing. You want the user to be fully immersed in their task, not thinking about what they’re doing. That counts double if it’s a commercial site and your aim is for the user to buy something from you.

If you’ve done a good job of creating a practical design, everything should be intuitive, with no need for any thinking to be done. Part of your job as a designer is to anticipate what the user is going to try to accomplish and do whatever you can to facilitate that accomplishment.

Common things to watch for include:

  • Things that look clickable but aren’t
  • Things that don’t look clickable but are
  • Confusing or poorly worded instructions
  • Objects overlapping on screen
  • Excessive delay between click and response
  • Improper tab order
  • Blocking normal operation of input devices
  • Expecting desktop interaction from mobile devices

Your designs are your reputation

Every design you create needs to work well, and this is more important than how the design looks. When a design works properly, it will stand out from the vast majority of designs that actually don’t work at all well.

So remember this when you are designing your next interface, because your reputation stands or falls on the quality of the usability you have incorporated into it.

Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.
  • Carlos

    Great article Catalin! Glad you wrote about this. I find there is always a struggle between web designers/developers and the end user when it comes to usability and design. On the one end we have to keep in mind the demographic and the sophistication of the user and ensure the usability works for them. A perfect example is the introduction of those icons like the “drawer” icon (to expand) menu or going back a few years the shopping cart and envelope icons. I’m sure the first designers to include those icons onto their websites got a lot users confused as to what they were used for. One approach we use on our website (www.OMIS.ca) is to have text aids (for example an icon with wording next to it) which helps the user understand the icon and eventually, with repeat visits – and visits to other websites, the icon will become accepted.

    My philosophy is that designers/developers should lead the advancement of usability and let the users accept the new trends. After all, that is our duty as the professionals in the industry.