Jane Pyle recently linked to this neat article: Bruce Hadley explains how McAfee decreased their support calls by improving the usability of their software. He outlines a number of useful usability tips. It's worth checking out the full article, but I wanted to point out some points that resonated with me.
UI tip #3: Get feedback through task-oriented use.
Most developers, when (and if) they include users, look for feature feedback. You want to know what needs to be in the software, what can wait for the next release, and how you stack up against the competition.
Trouble is, that sort of quest does nothing to improve your software's usability. You need to stay focused, Ries says, on real and specific tasks that your users will need to perform.
This is something you will encounter time and time again. Users have a really hard time telling you what they need, because they will often tell you what features they want without telling you what they want to achieve.
As an example, let's say you're working on a hypothetical web content managing systems. Users use this system to update websites. One day, you get a feature request from your users: They'd love to be able to print out unpublished pages in a nice format with wide margins. That feature probably strikes you as being slightly strange, so instead of implementing the feature, you go and ask them why they want it.
Turns out that your content management system is unsuitable for your users' copyediting process. Your users can't correct each other's work. Perhaps they can't access each other's drafts, or there is no change management, or users accidentally overwrite other users' changes. To get around the problem, everyone started to print out drafts, give them to each other, and correct them on paper. Obviously, implementing a better print feature will not solve the problem. Your users never actually wanted to print anything; what they wanted were better collaboration and change tracking features.
So you can't rely on user feedback alone. You need to go and talk to your users. You need to find out what they really need, instead of what they tell you they want.
UI tip #5: Never shut the product down.
Despite the structure of a four-phase development plan, McAfee wanted maximum feedback; therefore, they made sure ProtectionPilot prototypes were available to anyone, anytime.
We do the same thing at my company. We have an internal server called head.company.com which always runs the head version of our web application. We also have an internal blog where the development team writes about changes to the head version, publishes screen casts of visible changes, constantly asks for feedback, and encourages people to play around with head.company.com. We don't disappear for a year and then gloriously reappear with a shiny golden new product that probably misses the mark entirely because nobody had a clue what we were up to.
We also use head.company.com to do informal usability tests.
All of this allows us to get constant feedback even long before we commit to a new version. We don't have to wait for a beta test cycle to get useful feedback.
UI tip #7: More is nearly always less.
It's difficult, because some users will always request more. I think you have to decide what you want the product to do, and take a stand. Among the products I've used that don't work well, most made the assumption that if they gave me more options I'd be happier.
The hardest part of keeping an application lean and mean is removing features. So try not to let it come to that. Think a dozen times about each new feature before you introduce it.
UI tip #10: Resist the urge to make a quick fix.
If users don't get something, the first inclination is often to add some explanatory text. This never works.
UI tip #19: Bring the engineers into the UI calls.
Otherwise, they often won't believe that there's a problem with the user interface at all. After all, they're perfectly capable of using it.
There's a ton of great stuff in the article. Check it out. And once you're done with it, Smashing Magazine also has a useful list of 10 usability tips.
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