Five Survival Techniques for Creating Usable Products

by Christine Perfetti

Imagine the following scenario.

Your development team is tasked with creating a touch screen interface for a computerized order-taking kiosk at El Gato Loco, a chain of fast food Mexican Restaurants. The restaurant plans to place these kiosks in the lobby of each restaurant in the hopes of processing more food orders during the busiest periods, the lunch and dinner rushes. Your kiosk users, the restaurant customers, will interact with the kiosk to pick their food items from the menu and to submit their orders.

How long do you think it would take your development team to design the kiosk? How long before you started usability testing the product?

Product Usability Survival Techniques

The above scenario is the foundation for a half-day exercise in User Interface Engineering’s course, “Product Usability: Survival
Techniques.” You might be surprised to learn that more than 2,000 developers who attended the class created the front-end design for the electronic kiosk interface in just a few hours. They also started testing the design with users in less than a day!

This design exercise does an excellent job of demonstrating several usability tips and techniques we’ve found to be crucial to a development team’s success.

1. Take Advantage of Paper Prototypes

One of the best techniques for getting early feedback on a design is paper prototyping. Using common office supplies, development teams can build a working prototype of a design in a matter of days.

We recommend teams use this technique in the first few weeks of development. It’s still the simplest method we know for gathering information about how users interact with a design. Teams identify what elements of the design fail users and redesign the interface quickly.

We instruct teams designing the El Gato Loco kiosk to draw all of their interface elements on paper. This allows everyone to be involved in the creation of interface elements and demonstrates how easy it is to design a mockup.

The most important aspect of paper prototyping is that teams can watch users interact with the design. In the case of the fast food ordering kiosk, teams observed users trying to accomplish their tasks, including ordering menu items.

2. Have a Holistic View of the Development Team

One of the biggest causes of usability problems is when one member of the development team fails to share all of the critical information they have about the product or users. Yet, all too often, we work with organizations that think of the development team as just the developers or those responsible for the coding of a product.

We’ve seen the most effective teams have a holistic view of the development team, focusing on the specific information each member brings to the table. Each member takes an active role in the design process and everyone has an opportunity to collaborate with each other.

In the course, we assign each attendee a unique role to play on the five-person development team. We have a product developer, marketing specialist, usability professional, end user, and franchise owner.

Each person has specific knowledge they must share with everyone else about the restaurant’s business and the user’s goals. The team’s goal is to design the front end of an electronic ordering kiosk for El Gato Loco in approximately 2 hours and to be prepared for testing that same day.

Pust Development Team
Figure 1. Product Usability Survival Techniques development team: All members of the development team are working together to create a design.

3. View Users as an Integral Member of the Development Team

One emerging pattern in our ongoing research is that design teams, knowledgeable about their users’ needs and goals, are more likely to produce usable, effective, and pleasing user experiences. The excellent development teams look to their users as partners and consider them to be an indispensable part of the development team.

For the El Gato Loco exercise, the users are people who tend to frequent fast-food restaurants. To bring home the importance of the user in making design decisions, we assign one member of the team as the End User.

The End User represents a typical fast food customer who acts as the testing participant for the team. We instruct users to help their team measure the success of the design by completing some tasks with the interface. The End User’s job is to place orders interacting with the kiosk so the team can see where to focus their design efforts. During the exercise, teams have the opportunity to test several different people to see how well their kiosk performs.

4. Identify Usability Problems Early

One of the best ways to prevent launching unusable products is to identify any issues early on in the development process when it’s still simple to make design changes. Yet, many struggling development teams save usability testing for the final stages right before a project launch.

The most successful teams start testing during the first couple weeks of the project. By finding usability problems very early on, teams prevent themselves from going in the wrong direction, leading to wasted time, money, and resources.

The best way to get design team members to see the benefits of testing is to have them observe a user interacting with a design. That’s why, during the course, we have real users test out the kiosk design to effectively demonstrate the power of usability testing.

5. Reduce Implementation Time

Every prototype goes through the same four stages: Plan, Implement, Measure, and Learn.

In the Plan stage, teams look at their products’ areas of highest risk and identify what information they need to make key design decisions. During the Implement stage, the team builds just enough of the product so they have something to test. In the Measure stage, the team collects data that will help them make informed design decisions, with tools such as usability testing. In the Learn stage, the team responds to what they’ve observed by adjusting the interface, functionality, or schedule for the product.

Iterative Lifecycle
Figure 2. The four stages of prototype development: Plan, Implement, Measure, and Learn.

When we ask designers what stage they spend the bulk of their time in when launching a product, the majority of designers answer, the Implementation Stage.

However, our research shows that the teams launching the most usable products on schedule and on budget spend the bulk of their time in the Measure and Learn stage.

The key to the four-stage process is to teach teams how to go through the stages very quickly, ideally in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months. In the one-day Product Usability course, we tell our attendees that by the end of the day, they’ll see how to go through 60 iterations per week!

By reducing implementation time, development teams can go through more iterative cycles and discover key information earlier in the project.

Introducing Usability Techniques to Teams

In just one day, the El Gato Loco exercise does an excellent job of simulating what many projects take months to do. We find this practical, hands-on exercise is a great way to introduce important usability techniques to development teams.

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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