A big mistake many people make is confusing usability with accessibility. Not only are the two very different, but the trend seems to be that one is seen as less important than the other. Although both should be taken seriously, it is true that many of the ideals surrounding accessibility still apply to usability and vice versa.

Optimizing the usability of a site will help make it more accessible, or at least provide a better framework to build on. If your wider audience finds the site difficult to use, it will almost certainly be problematic for people with disabilities or learning difficulties. In the same way, the degree of consideration that goes into addressing accessibility is equally valid when it comes to usability.

Putting the user first

If you remove all the fancy stuff from web design, pages are finally being built for people to use. Forget showing off all the Flash tricks you can muster from your repertoire or bombarding people’s browsers with bandwidth-breaking images, and you’re left with the best content delivery service you can offer. Before you even start brainstorming or thinking about launching Dreamweaver, you should be clear in your mind that usability is about putting user needs first. Remember that designing anything from shoes to sites is judged based on the performance of the final product.

This will help you carry out one of the most important steps in most design processes and especially in software engineering: obtaining requirements. Most professional new media agencies will already be familiar with this procedure and will use it to establish a stable understanding of what the user expects to see, and the success of the project will depend on its completion. Whether you are tasked with building a site for a specific customer or hoping to launch something that will drive traffic more directly, recognizing what end-user expectations are will be an essential exercise.

Obtaining requirements

The key point to remember about understanding user requirements is that you are unlikely to get them the first time. This means that a constant flow of communication throughout the design process is paramount to get as close to your expectations as possible. Talking to users, recording what they say, and trying to pin down exactly what they mean is the only sure way to meet their needs.

It is also important to note that the people you are designing for are not necessarily aware of the type of “developer language” that you would be comfortable with. This is where the production of graphical diagrams or descriptive case studies can be used effectively to represent how you see the project in progress. Navigation flow charts, sample site maps, and perhaps data flow charts for e-commerce solutions are good ways to present complex information without confusing others with technical jargon.
Likewise, there is no reason why a shared direction cannot be achieved for the way visuals go with page mockups. Flat digital drawings of potential template designs can be presented and examined, before a period of prototyping more sophisticated page elements, interfaces, and navigation structures begins.

Professional Help

If you are not too keen on conducting general usability studies yourself, or perhaps you realized that it is not feasible, you can always rely on the services of others.

Professional consultancies or specialized agencies are common and offer a range of complete solutions covering all major processes. They will also usually give your site a preliminary assessment to determine if it really requires the full usability treatment and what is the best way to go after it all. so it’s really about identifying what needs and goals are motivating the website, or establishing what it is expected to achieve. This can lead to a detailed analysis of what the target demographic will be, so a cross section of the audience group can be studied.

Typically, a sample of “typical users” will be asked to attend the test sessions that will observe the participants as they experience the site. This can range from simply asking them to freely browse the content for a certain period of time, to setting certain tasks and scenarios for them.

While they are encouraged to ‘think out loud’ at all times, their comments are monitored and recorded using sophisticated tracking software or by video. Designers are encouraged to attend the sessions and hear how users perceive the site, and perhaps what improvements they might suggest. At the end, all participants are asked to submit their overall impressions of the site during the in-depth interview sessions. All the findings are then compiled into detailed reports that will form the basis for any future design reviews and new projects that emerge from the findings.

Conducting user surveys

When gathering a sample of your users is not a realistic option, there are other ways to get feedback. Many sites will include email addresses or contact forms so that visitors can submit their opinions, but this does not guarantee that you will receive the kind of valuable response you want. It may be more useful to provide electronic questionnaires that will measure user feedback more effectively.

Using a specialized program will allow you to publish sophisticated interactive surveys quickly and easily. The benefit here is that the results can be logged to a server before a more detailed statistical analysis can be processed and interpreted when managing any practical improvements. There are some out-of-the-box software solutions that will perform remote assessments of user actions as they happen in real time. This type of approach needs to be clearly made known to visitors before they participate, as tracking their behaviors covertly would compromise areas of data protection law and certainly create mistrust if discovered.

However, some interesting facts related to areas of the site or the actual interface would be revealed by the way different people approach the content. By simply tracking link paths or cursor activity, you will be able to determine how navigation was perceived and perhaps how effective visual cues such as menus, buttons, and anchors are in directing your audience’s actions.

This provides one of the truest images of the user’s perception, because the subject is likely to behave as he would naturally when surfing the web casually. When in stricter “laboratory” conditions, they may feel pressured by the environment or the presence of an examiner, or feel aware of the time it is taking to perform. It would also have an adverse effect if they expected to use hardware, peripherals, operating systems or navigation software that they are not familiar with.

By making judgments about how typical visitors interact with the site in their own homes or workplaces, you will help differentiate how the novice or experienced user behaves without interruption.

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