Experts in “usability” gathered in London today to discuss several issues surrounding this topic. The meeting had been called by TechSmith, the producers of Morae the leading usability testing software.

It became apparent during the discussions that usability testing is often seen as something that is performed at the end of the development of a web site. Businesses often perceive usability testing as some kind of process driven function that merely works out if the buttons are the right colour or the sign up box is in the right place.

Usability adds value
However, usability is much more than this; it’s about working out whether or not your web site visitors, for instance, are delighted with their experience. In other words, usability testing helps businesses assess the true value of their web site.

Sadly, though, many companies see usability testing as a dispensable “add-on” to web development. And as the budgets get squeezed, testing ends up being thrown out. However, that is madness.

Consider a car manufacturer. Imagine they designed a car, engineered it, created all the necessary production tools and then realised they’d spent all their money and couldn’t do any usability testing. “Never mind,” they’d say, “those nice folk at Top Gear will tell us if there are any problems and we can change things with the next model.”

But without usability testing, the care the hapless manufacturer could produce may have the pedals in a different part of the car to the steering wheel. The mirror may be unobtrusive, but unable to show the view behind the car. And the CD player may not be loud enough for it to be heard above loud road noise. Such issues are avoided because usability is a built-in essential in the design, engineering and production process of making a new car. Motor manufacturers consider the users – or “drivers” as they call them – throughout the process, right from the first concepts.

People are the last consideration online
Yet it seems from their web sites, that many motor manufacturers have not used the same process for their Internet activities. Often the sites are unusable – the last person these companies appear to have considered is the web site user, or “reader”, as I like to call them.

It’s strange how some businesses put their “user” central to the production of their own products and services, yet effectively ignore their Internet users. Usability is essential to the success of any online venture and should be a central theme to everything that is done towards that web site. As a result, your business needs to consider how people might use your web site right from the very moment you conceive the notion for your online business.

Waiting to do usability testing until the development is done will often mean that you end up with negative comments that you ultimately ignore. Making usability testing a “way of life” for your business means you will adapt and evolve your web development as you go, so that your finished product is much more likely to be usable.

Usability is no longer something you can set aside until later; it is a fundamental feature of web development from concept through to finished site.

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