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Designing for usability

31st March 2014

Designers and Developers are often too quick to decide that they have the right solution to certain usability and design problems. A lot of the time we create something expecting our users to conform, change their habits and change the way they would normally use an interface to suit the one we have designed. This should not be the case.

I don’t mean to be critical of designers, but we often get caught up in spending a lot of time designing interfaces that are visually appealing without putting enough focus on how they work. I see many examples of this on dribbble. Don’t get me wrong, aesthetics are important and can help with usability if done properly, however they should not be the be all and end all. Designers design interfaces that we believe are easy to use and that we “Think” will be easy for the user.

The thing is, in most cases the design solutions we come up with seem perfectly fine and do the job, but when the user starts to interact with them they start to have problems. This is because what is good for us is not always what is good for the user or what they want. We think differently to the user and in a lot of cases we are looking at the system in a different context.

User Centred Design

User centred design is a way in which we can include usability and user experience methods in a project at every step of the design process.

User centred design means focusing on your users needs as a priority over the visual design or development of a system. It means investing more time at the start of a project building an idea of who the users are and of their needs. Using this process means involving the end user in each stage of the design through to testing and deployment.

Any system that we create should be easy and intuitive for the end user. There should be no real learning involved and they should not have to adapt the way in which they do things to start using our designs, they are already busy enough.

There are 3 main principles you should think about while designing for usability, these are:

1. Early focus on users and their tasks

At the start of any project you want to find out as much about the intended users as you can. You want to learn why the user wants to use system and how they intend to use it. If you are rebuilding a current system you will want to learn how it is used, what they like about it, their frustrations and what they would like to see improved.

If you can you should complete contextual enquiries. Go to where your users will being using your product, watch them and take notes. Seeing the users use something in context will give you a greater idea of the needs and the constraints of the user.

Once you have a good idea of who your users are you can then proceed to creating user personas, these are fictional representations of the typical users of the system you are designing. Ideally your personas should be based on real users by incorporating what you have learnt through techniques such as user research and contextual enquiry.

With the help of actual users you should develop red routes, these are the key tasks a user will need to be able to perform. Ask yourself, what are the critical tasks that should be easy to complete? For example, finding a house and arranging a viewing on a property website.

2. Empirical measurement of users

We should be continually testing the system with real users throughout the creation of the product. These tests should be undertaken from the very beginning of the design process. Results should be measured and recorded against 3 main objectives:

  • Effectiveness – How many of our users were able to successfully complete the tasks given to them?
  • Efficiency – How efficient were they in completing the tasks? How long did it take them if they were able to complete them at all?
  • Satisfaction – How satisfied were they with the overall experience of the product. This can be recorded by simply asking the user to rate different points of the design out of 10

By measuring these objectives we will be left with real data that can be used to assess the usability of our design.

3. Iterative Design

Using an iterative approach to the design it allows us to keep the user involved throughout the different stages of design process. In an ideal world we could conduct user tests using paper prototypes before we enter any graphics software or write any code. This allows us to get things right before doing most of the work which saves money in the long run.

Iterative design allows you to repeat the process of designing, testing and learning. With each step you are learning what the usability issues are, this allows you to rectify any problems early in the design process.


User centred design clearly has it’s benefits. It may take a little bit more work at the start of a project getting to know the end user by conducting research and creating personas etc. but it definitely becomes worthwhile once you get into the nitty gritty bits of a project.

User centred design will help you make design decisions, you will sometimes be surprised in the way your users actually use your product in context compared to the way in which you thought it would be used. You will find yourself concentrating less on how your design looks and investing more time on how it will work for the intended user.

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on 31st March 2014