Isn't everybody a Usability Analyst?

Sometimes I am asked what I do for living, so I say I am a Usability Analyst. Quite often people have never heard of this role or what a Usability Analyst actually does. Ironically though, we are all Usability Analysts.

Everyone has experience of using technology that isn’t usable, whether it is an alarm clock, a video recorder or a mobile phone. We use these devices everyday and could improve the experience if we had the chance, such as changing a button configuration or simply making terminology more understandable.

To illustrate my point, let me share with you my Monday morning and decide for yourself what went wrong.

Monday

7:00am It’s a Monday morning in Bristol, its dark, cold and I am five seconds away from hearing the horrible sound of my alarm clock. Five, four, three, two, one… BANG.  Tired, I turn and grab my alarm clock and switch it to snooze for five minutes.

7.45am Forty-five minutes later I wake up and discover that my alarm clock had in fact been switched off and I am lucky it isn’t lunch time.

7.50am Thirty minutes behind schedule I quickly make my way downstairs for breakfast. I grab a bowl, pour my cereal and attempt to open a pint of fresh milk. Unfortunately, the soft plastic ring-pull snaps off and having started the day so badly I decide against using the knife!

8.10am Tired, hungry and cold I stand waiting for a bus and glance at the time table, it reads:

During university term: During university holidays:
Monday – Friday 07.00 to 18.00 - Every twenty minutes 07.00 to 23.00 - Every forty minutes
18.00 to 23.00 – Every forty minutes -
Saturday 07.00 to 23.00 - Every thirty-five minutes 07.00 to 23.00 - Every thirty-five minutes
Sunday No Service No Service

Having no idea whether its term time or not (it’s the New Year) I decide to walk ten minutes down the road where the buses run more frequently.

8.15am Five minutes down the road, the 8.20 bus goes past five minutes early, it is term time after all …

9.10am Late for work, I make my way to reception and attempt to open one of many doors by pulling on a large door handle. Unfortunately, the door has to be pushed open so the pull got me no where and frustrated me.

9.15am I arrive at work and head straight for the coffee machine…

So now you have heard my story, is it the result of bad luck or bad judgement? Well, let’s take another look to see if these events could have been avoided.

Alarm clock - an alarm clock with a single slide button for off, alarm, and snooze is not good design. One could easily make the wrong choice in a dark environment, especially if this person has just woken up tired and half asleep.

Possible solution: Add a snooze button at the top and use a simple slide button on the side that turns the alarm off and on. This way, I would have simply hit the alarm at the top and this would have set the alarm to snooze mode.

The milk carton - the soft plastic ring-pull is too flimsy and is easily breakable. It is clearly unusable if it breaks with strong human force.

Possible solution: Use stronger plastic, a metal ring-pull, anything that withstands a strong pull.

Bus time table - anyone who is not a student (maybe even some students) may not know the start date of a New Year University term. Therefore, no one will be sure of bus times around New Year, Easter or Christmas.

Possible solution: Providing dates with university terms is straight forward and would mean that everyone knows the correct bus times. See an example below.

During University Term (15th January 2006 – 23rd June 2006*): During University Holidays (23rd June 2006 – 21st September 2006*):
Monday – Friday 07.00 to 18.00 - Every twenty minutes 07.00 to 23.00 - Every forty minutes
18.00 to 23.00 – Every forty minutes -
Saturday 07.00 to 23.00 - Every thirty-five minutes 07.00 to 23.00 - Every thirty-five minutes
Sunday No Service No Service

* - University of West of England. www.uwe.ac.uk

The door handle - This is a classic usability problem. Doors with large handles will tempt people to pull so restricting people to just pushing will cause problems. Quite simply, if a door has a handle people should be able to open it with a pull.

PS - In case you’re wondering, I now have a new alarm clock and go to a different bus stop!

Conclusion

We are all Usability Analysts, we use and discuss technology everyday of ours lives and many companies worldwide are finding the insights invaluable.

Global brands are competing for our time and money and this has changed development methodology. An era of developing technology first and integrating users second has evolved into an era where user involvement is becoming an important element in the product design and testing lifecycle.

The Internet has also had a major impact on web site usability because many people now shop online where they can compare prices, consumer feedback and independent reviews. This volume of product information is helping people make better purchasing decisions which, in turn are forcing manufacturers to reconsider the reliance on clear marketing to sell unusable technology.

Usability Analysts are contributing to improved technological performance and this is likely to continue due to competition and consumer collaboration at a local and global level: in a nutshell, Usability Analysts are making products more usable and providing a better user experience for everybody.