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How To Give Actionable Design Feedback: Usability

Product Manager

As a founder, you will no doubt have a clear vision on what your product should look like, how it should function and how both of these tie together to create a truly unforgettable experience for your users.

In bringing that vision to life, you’ll bring on UX and UI designers, and at some point in the design process, need to provide feedback on the designs. Here’s where the challenge lies. Giving effective and constructive design feedback is hard. Vague comments, like “I don’t like it” or “the button placement feels off” isn’t helpful for your designers. At the same time, it’s hard to find the right language, if you yourself are not a designer. 

Understanding some key design principles will better equip you for this process, and shorten the amount of time it takes to get to a final output that you’re happy with. When reviewing a design there are several areas or components that it’s important to consider. Broadly speaking these are:

  1. Usability

  2. Visual

  3. Accessibility

  4. Brand and messaging 

These concepts are all intertwined with one another, and it’s not always possible to separate them out cleanly. For instance, let's take icon design. The design of an icon needs to be representative of the information it’s trying to convey (usability), match the aesthetics of the rest of the website (visual), and also be representative of the brand’s personality (brand and messaging).

A PHD thesis could be written on each of these concepts, but in the interests of providing you as practical a guide as possible, I’ll provide a high-level overview of how to critique a design for usability. I’ll follow up with similar guides on how to critique the visual and accessibility aspects of a design, so make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated.

Usability Design

ISO9241, the International Standards for the Ergonomics of Human-System Interaction (yes, I nerd out on this stuff!) defines Usability as:

[the] extent to which a system, product or service can be used by specified users to achieve specific goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.

Enabling users to achieve a desired outcome is a critical component of a system, and thus your main goal when designing for usability should always be to add value (effectiveness) and save your users time (efficiency). It's part of the reason why Uber has been so successful. One-click and a taxi magically arrives.

That said, the most important word in this definition is ‘satisfaction’ - if your users aren’t happier after their interaction with your app, you will always struggle to gain the traction you're looking for. If you still had to pay a taxi driver cash, would your interaction with Uber be as satisfying? Probably not.

When reviewing your designs or your sites usability there are tried and tested methodologies that you can lean on - no need to re-invent the wheel. A favoured approach is to assess a design against a set of heuristics. Jakob Neilson is a leader in this field of usability and created these 10 heuristics. It was written in 1994 but very little has changed since, and his research can be applied to any device from the top of the range Macbook Pro to an old school Nokia 3310. 

I’d encourage you to have these heuristics up on the screen whenever you’re providing feedback on usability. To help you understand how to use these heuristics, I’ll explore each of them in turn, providing practical examples to bring them to life.

1: Visibility of the system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.

The upload bar below not only shows what is being done (uploading 3 files) but also the progress of this process via the time remaining and percentage complete. 

Via Dribble

2. Match between the system and the real world 

The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, and ensure the information appears in a natural and logical order.

The ‘trash can’ is synonymous with throwing things away and so it makes sense to use it when you want to convey a delete function. If it were to be used for anything else people would quickly get confused.

Via Dribble

3. User control and freedom 

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" option to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Make sure to support users when they need to 'undo' or 'redo'.

Users often make mistakes or may use your product in a way that you wouldn't expect. You need to ensure that they can get back to a safe space if something goes wrong. Breadcrumbs are a great example of indicating where the user is and how to get back to where they were if they took a wrong path.

Via Nasa

4. Consistency and Standards

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions. Are you using standard conventions to make sure the design is quick to learn and understand? eCommerce websites will all have their cart in the top right corner. Jakob Neilson said that most people will spend the majority of their time on the internet on everyone else’s site other than yours! Trying to go against the grain in some instances can result in bad experiences and missed conversions. 

Via Amazon

5. Error Prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Prevention is better than cure, so if you can stop errors from happening in the first place you users will have a much better experience. Password requirements have become so complex and varied that it's often hard to know what is needed from you. By providing users with guidance on what constitutes a good password you’ll stop a lot of people running into those problems in the first place.

Via Dribbble

6. Recognition rather than recall

Minimize a user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. Your user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Users should be able to quickly recognise an action without having to think. Search suggestions are a nice example of this. Without having to complete your sentence you can quickly scan through a series of options, and select the one you want rather than having to think about what you are typing. There is no guarantee that search engines will get the suggestions right 100% of the time but they will for the vast majority of use cases. Returning to the original definition of usability, having your sentence completed for you is pretty satisfying. 

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — are used to speed up an interaction for expert users. Allowing users to tailor frequent actions, means your system will be able to cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. 

In Slack’s new interface you can now select from a variety of styling options when drafting a message. The novice user would likely highlight the text and select the corresponding button to apply the bold styling. The more advanced user would likely double click on the word and then use the Command + B shortcut. By providing this information in the tooltip the user will quickly gravitate towards using the shortcut saving them valuable seconds and delivering a delightful hit of satisfaction.

8. Aesthetics and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Website real estate, the space you have to convey the information you need - is limited. This is more acute with mobile-optimised websites. The aim of any interface should be to direct users to focus on the content that is most valuable. The Google homepage is by far the best example of this. Loads of space, uncluttered and supremely focused. It's not surprising they dominate search.

9. Help users recognise, diagnose and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

A 404 error code indicates that the page cannot be found on a server. Often this is overlooked, as it's not a very common occurrence but all too often websites won’t make it very clear what has happened nor how to really fix it. Ebay’s 404 page is a great example of how it should be done. There is no mention of the code 404 insight - to the average user this just looks like another landing page. It provides the user with a clear explanation of what has happened, a call to action that will take you to the home page, and they masterfully use is as an opportunity to sell you more things!

10. Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

For our new product Forward Advances we added an FAQs page. It's not a hugely complicated product but there are questions that crop up often, so it's a quick and easy to surface this information. By phrasing it as a question the user will be able to quickly know if it's what they are looking for. It also allows us to track what is commonly being asked and help improve the messaging on the site.


Conclusion

You will no doubt be heavily invested in your designs but it's important to remain objective, in the interest of creating an intuitive and usable site. Following a set of heuristics will give you a framework from which you can analyse your designs and your site in a constructive way.

Whilst usability is all about making things slicker and easier for the user it's important not to forget the differentiated experience you are trying to create for your users. You may run into situations where brand experience will trump sticking strictly to usability heuristics, and that's OK. And as always, you don't know that you've made the right decision, until you test it. So, test, test test.


Further Reading

Product Manager

Adam has over 5 years experience working as a Product / Project Manager creating sites that recieve millions of hits a day for the likes of Google and Saatch & Saatchi. Most recently he worked at BabylonHealth developing a globalised product that used AI and Machine Learning to provide accessible, affordable healthcare. He loves solving problems and brings a diverse skill set to the table. In former life, Adam was also a commercial pilot and completed degree in software engineering.

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