Editor's note: I'm excited to present the first in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey. Once a month, Theresa will share her perspectives on usability and information architecture to help us see why they're so important to content strategy. I hope this will start some conversations about how to integrate these disciplines to create even better solutions for businesses and end-users. Please add your thoughts as comments below. ___________________________________________________________________
In the last 10 years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about usability and user-centred design. Given that the idea has been around for a while now, you’d think that people would have a good idea of what usability is. Not true! As a usability expert and user-centred designer, a lot of my work involves educating clients on the value and purpose of user-centred design and the tasks that go into making a usable technology product, such as a website, intranet,or mobile phone interface.
What is “usability” anyways?
User-centred design is a way of designing a product so that it meets the needs of those using it. Usability refers to how easy it is to actually use that product.
When a company designs a product, it does so because it sees a business need for that product. However, there are many many details that go into making a product that are not answered by the business need that drives it. One way to answer these questions is to talk to the people who will be using it. This is where the “user” in “user-centred design” comes into play. We find the target product users and ask them what their current problems are, what would make their lives easier, observe them at work or play, and then create a design that integrates more seamlessly into their lives.
If the product fulfills the business need and is easy-to-use, then the user will likely find this product more valuable. This person will use it more, recommend it to friends, and help contribute to the success of the product. But using a product isn’t always by choice. Sometimes employees in a company are required to use certain products, such as an intranet, to do their work. The faster they can access the information they need on the intranet, the more efficient and effective the employee will be. Usability improvements add to the company’s overall success.
What does usability have to do with content strategy?
If people can’t find information or understand what they’ve found, then that content isn’t usable. User-centred design and usability testing helps you discover the information that your end user is looking for and how they want it delivered. It also helps you validate that your messages are being perceived in the way you want them to be, and highlights opportunities to improve.
In this 12-part series, I hope to shine some light on usability and user-centred design. My approach is to educate those who don’t know a lot about the practice. In this series, I’ll go over:
- User-centred design and its process
- Information architecture
- Kickoff, Collaboration & Reviews
- User interviews and personas
- Site maps
- Taxonomy and metadata
- Usability testing
- Wrap up
Usability.gov has a great overview of the user-centred design process. Although I’m an expert in usability, I still refer to this site for information! You can also look at this article, “The Five Competencies of User Experience Design,” to give you a good understanding of the various roles in the usability arena.
About the Author
Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at www.keypointe.ca, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.