Use Usability to Best Advantage

Ideas for columns can come from the strangest places. This week’s comes courtesy of my grandmother, her new television, and a two-hour drive.

My grandmother’s eyesight is fading so she wanted a bigger television. And you can probably guess that she has trouble with complicated remote controls. So, when we bought her new TV, size and simplicity were the two most important criteria. Picture quality was barely a factor. We chose a TV whose remote control has only channel and volume controls, with everything else buried under one additional button labeled “Menu.” It certainly looked simple to me, and we just told Grandmother not to ever press Menu.

But if you’ve ever been to a usability test, you’ve probably been humbled to discover that your idea of simple isn’t always correct. Imagine my surprise yesterday when I stopped by to check on Grandmother and noticed that her TV had closed-captioning turned on and the television commands were showing up in French.

It turns out that though the remote control is extremely simple, the Menu button is placed in between the channel up and down buttons. Anyone with poor eyesight, long fingernails, or even just fat fingers will hit it accidentally when she changes channels. That’s when the fun starts. Once you hit Menu, the channel up and down buttons change the television’s settings. So, my grandmother had managed to change almost every setting on her television.

You’re probably wondering how this relates to analyzing customer data. Like I said, ideas come from the strangest places. I had a two-hour drive home to ponder my failure at helping my grandmother with one simple task: finding a television with a simple remote control. I could blame it on the TV manufacturer. After all, its designers put the button in such a stupid place.

But when I assumed the remote control was simple using my own judgment and opinion, I made the same mistake they did. If only I’d taken my grandmother to the store and put the remote in her hand…. After letting my mind wander and doing some free-form association, I wound up thinking about usability testing and the wealth of data it can provide — data that goes far beyond usability.

If you’re an analyst, you might not think usability applies to you. It’s probably not your responsibility. But you should know that a usability test can provide much secondary information that can spark ideas or shed light on customer behavior and thinking.

Stretch your imagination a little and think of your Web site as my grandmother’s television and its navigation as her remote control. Her experience touches upon a wealth of issues, not just where a button should be located. If you take a close look, you’ll see good fodder in there for the analysts among us, not to mention the marketers and product managers.

For example, some of you would pounce on the fact that the purchase decision for the television was not actually based on the television, but on the remote control. In usability testing, you probably would learn that fact through a side comment from the guinea pig, since you probably wouldn’t ask that question directly. So, be sure to look at more than just the bottom-line results; reading the notes from the test can net you all sorts of tidbits. It can spark ideas for trends to look for or give you insight into a customer’s mind. You might even get ideas for further research.

Usability test results frequently highlight issues about demographics. The candidates are typically chosen because they represent a group that’s important to your business. But look beyond the obvious demographics, just in case you find a hidden trend or tidbit there. In my grandmother’s case, some less-obvious demographic characteristics might be people with poor eyesight or people with long fingernails. Or how about people on mind-muddling medication? Yes, I realize she would probably never make it into your candidate pool in the first place, but that’s not the point. The point is, looking beyond the usability tasks and success of completion can spark ideas or give clues that might explain some trends that don’t make sense. Try this with your own usability candidates, and you might see some of their comments in a new light.

Reading the side comments that usability candidates make during the test can reveal opportunities for product innovations, packaging, pricing, and more. Reading between the lines regarding the path they followed through your site can help you form hypotheses about your existing customers and clarify how to go about testing the hypotheses.

Formal usability studies are expensive, but don’t fret. Check out this article (from two years ago, but still helpful!) about how to get good usability information without the hefty price tag. I’ll add one suggestion to Aaron Hurst’s list, in the event that even the most informal usability studies are not an option for you: Choose individual users at random and trace their paths through your site using either your log or transaction files. You won’t have direct comments from the users, but you will still be able to form and test hypotheses, look for unexpected activity, and spur your thinking.

If you’ve been skipping usability studies because you didn’t think they pertain to you, think again. The issues affecting usability often have as much to do with your customers as with the design of the site. Get out the notes from prior studies, and make it your business to get involved.

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