24/7 Usability Methods

Mark Hurst has a great post on “Listening Labs” in his excellent blog. In it he talks about a method I can’t recommend highly enough – a freeform session in which you watch your user actually use your product, their way. No test script, no tasks, no standardized objectives. Just “show me what you do”. I’ve been using this method for about 10 years now, to identify problem areas, build personas, and flesh out requirements.

What surprised me about Mark’s article is that he called “Listening Labs” an unorthodox method. I’d never thought of this as particularly clever or unusual, so it got me thinking.

There is a mindset amongst us product people that user feedback is best solicited through guided methods. Interviews, surveys, lab time, observations… all of these things structure your time with the user and are great for targeting specific stuff. But I feel that it’s absolutely crucial to do an additional sort of data gathering – we’ll call it 24/7 Usability.

24/7 Usability means that at any given moment of any given day, you are soliciting feedback on your existing product. There are a number of ways to do this, and you’ll be amazed at how simple they are.

The Feedback Link
First and foremost, the very minimum you should do. You should have a way for a user to give feedback from any page or screen in your application. The feedback should have a form, so you can get enough info to respond to them – and it should be called “Feedback”. Seriously “Tell us what you think” or “suggestions” or “comments” or any number of other cute, non-standard things may give your site/app personality, but it’s not necessarily going to be instantly recognizable to a confused or frustrated user.
The result of this form should go to customer support, of course, but the user experience team or professional should be CC’ed. Just work out who is the responder, and make sure you’re not double-teaming your poor users with responses.

Message Boards/Forums
I can’t tell you how valuable the Usability Forum for my product is. I post survey questions there, I answer interface questions (each one identifies a problem with the design!) and I get requests. I can even share screenshots of proposed designs, since only registered users can get to the forum. I keep a spreadsheet that logs every feature request and confusion point, along with how many users have requested it, and what type of user they are. When I’m building my strategy, I refer to this spreadsheet like a bible.
When a new feature gets released, or an old one gets improved, I head back to the forum and comment on every post that asked for it, letting users know we listened to them. As a result, our users have confidence that their feedback is being heard and acted on.
A bonus is that because the forum is public, if a user requests a feature that doesn’t make sense to other users, those other users will dispute their request, and they often work out a compromise between themselves – without my interference!

Your Customer Support Team
If you’re not already good friends with every one of your customer support folks, you’d better bake them cookies and get on it. These people are the front line of usability. They hear all the complaints – and the compliments!
I’ve got an arrangement with my support managers – whenever anyone in support gets a call where the problem is interface, or they can’t find a button, or don’t understand a word – support sends me an email. These all get tracked in that Holy Spreadsheet too, with special annotation that it came from a support critter. Those get higher weight because they were bad enough that someone picked up the phone and made a call.

Your Sales Team
Believe it or not, your sales people are just as important as the customer support people. Here’s where you have to be careful, because there are often qualifying factors. However, a salesperson knows that when she is demo’ing a product, and three potential customers ask the same question, there’s a real problem there. I’ve even taught my salesmonsters how to ask followup questions in a non-leading way, empowering them as mini-moderators. These guys are a fantastic source of feature requests, and they can give you the pulse of a customer segment you REALLY want to make happy – the ones you don’t have yet.

All too often, apps – whether web-based or dowloadable – are built in a hurry, with an eye to timelines and no thought of the future. However, it’s important to build into your architecture the ability to track everything a user does.
There are privacy issues, of course. However, it’s incredibly simple to assign a different token to each of three links to the same page, so you can tell which one is getting used the most. Qualitative data is precious, but nothing beats sheer quantitative data to show you what you’re doing right and wrong.
Take the extra day, or week, or month, to make sure that you’re tracking user behavior without violating privacy or user trust. It’s well worth it.

The point is, usability shouldn’t be an on- and off- thing. If you only test in spurts, you’re likely to miss some very important issues and opportunities. Consider every contact with a user, whether that contact is via website, person, or product as an opportunity to do 24/7 usability.

Today’s Glossary Term:
Wireframe – A rough diagram of a page/screen, either sketched by hand or made with black & white lines, that generally indicates basic layout and what info/functionality is shown. These are good for first walkthroughs, high-level validation of a concept, and finalizing requirements. They’re also great when you’re playing with multiple layouts or methods, because they take very little effort/time and can be very illustrative.

Today’s Interesting Link:
http://supercook.com/ – It’s got your usual web 2.0 look and feel, but the layout is useful, primary functionality is well highlighted, and the concept is great. I frequently have the problem of having too much of X and not wanting to let it go bad – with this site you enter an ingredient and it pulls up recipes.
I particularly like the suggestions on the search box, the mouseovers on everything, and the reactive nature of the site. Well done!

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If it was magic, how would it work?” – Alan Cooper

Today’s Music To Design To:
Ape of Naples is a fantastic album by Coil. If you’re familiar with Coil, you’ll enjoy the dark, funereal remixes, and if you aren’t familiar with them, it’s a good introduction. Excellent for designing dark, edgy stuff.
Buy the CD or Download an MP3

One thought on “24/7 Usability Methods

  1. Hi Krys,

    Saw your information on Linkedin…I’m looking for an Interaction Designer with product experience for our company. If you are interested, please send me your contact information and I will call at your convenience.


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