Tips on Software Usability

Professor Jan Borchers (Photo: RWTH Aachen)

In theory, buying a train ticket online is quite simple: You enter your desired travel times and destination, choose from the options proposed by the system, and two clicks later, enter your credit card information. But then you get interrupted: The phone rings. You take the call, returning just a few minutes later to find you’ve been “timed out” and all of the information you’ve entered on the Web page has been reset. “A frivolous waste of time and effort,” says Jan Borchers, professor of computer science and head of the Media Computing Group at RWTH Aachen University, who has been dealing with the subject of software usability since his days as a student.

The four biggest usability sins

The impacts of poor usability

How to improve bad software


Next page: Enterprise software especially is full of flaws

According to Borchers, enterprise software especially is full of flaws. And the reason for it is always the same:

  1. Developers don’t include the user in the development process – which means that every new function created from scratch ends up being tested by the end users directly. This “iterative process” has become common practice in the software industry. “There’s no such thing as a final product from a developer,” explains Borchers. Instead, software is developed and improved bit by bit until it’s finally ready for use. Here’s an example: A company needs new software for its elevator. Borchers takes his development team along to the maintenance call, because he wants them to understand who the user is, namely the service mechanic of the elevator manufacturer, who has to figure out on site why the elevator keeps getting stuck. He’s the guy who will ultimately have to deal with the software, both good and bad.
  2. Software is not perceived as a form of social interaction, but it does impact our daily lives and is as valuable as other social activities like making coffee or small talk. Antipathy towards a colleague, for example, can really spoil your day – and so can software that doesn’t work properly. Good software makes for happy employees. And happy employees work more effectively. So it goes without saying that a traveler who can order train tickets online without having to enter their information more than once, starts their journey in a much better mood.
  3. Featuritis: Software still contains way too many functions that are almost never used. This “almost,” however is enough justification for engineers and software developers to keep including those functions in the software architecture. But according to Borchers, there is an alternative to omnipotent software preconfigured with every imaginable function: the app. “Apps generally concentrate on a single task, and do so very well,” he says. The only problem is, users are bombarded with a plethora of comparable programs, making it nearly impossible to identify and choose the right app. That being said, the 80/20 rule still applies to today’s enterprise software: 80% of all users use only 20% of the available functions.
  4. Software cannot cope with errors. Dilbert is just a comic figure, so when his computer tells him to “Reboot after every error,” this doesn’t really reflect daily life, and certainly not daily working life, which is all about streamlining processes. Yet Borchers has, in fact, come across an employee who recently received the following error message after making an incorrect entry: “This mistake would not have happened with proper training.” In 1942, science fiction author Isaac Asimov formulated three ‘laws of robotics’ – one of them being that robots may not injure human beings. Thirty or so years later, Apple Macintosh creator Jef Raskin echoed that sentiment, stating “The system should treat all user input as sacred.” Because only then can you improve the software.

Next page: How to double traffic to your Web site

The rule of thumb in software development is that if your interface improves work efficiency by at least 10 – 15 percent, then it’s a good interface. Agile teams like those at SAP ensure that software is developed iteratively and is continuously improved. Apple went one step further at its most recent developer conference, proclaiming that it didn’t make software, it created user experience.

The benefits of improving usability

And although this does sound like a marketing pitch, it actually makes a lot of sense according to the latest research in the area. “User experience research” specialists at Nielsen Norman Group in California found that allocating 10% of your budget to usability could actually double the traffic to your Web site. And although there were no measurable results available for enterprise software, researchers did project “substantial improvement” there. Their tip: Double your budget for usability, and cut your allocated training expenses in half. A realistic goal would be to double the number of simultaneously-registered users.

But that’s not the only reason that justifies investment in good usability or user experience: “Future high potentials are growing up with Facebook, Internet television, and similar, and simply won’t be satisfied with a workplace equipped with a PC running Windows XP.”

Next page: Find out the user’s problems and fix them

So now that it’s clear we need to improve the software, what’s the next step?

It’s important to find out what is causing problems for the users and start fixing those problems first. That means:

  1. Testing the old design and identifying the good and not-so-good aspects of it.
  2. Looking at comparable solutions from competitors. This will give you ideas to work on.
  3. Setting up field studies. This will help you identify user behavior and any issues the users might be having.
  4. Prototyping on paper. Put your ideas down on paper first and then test them. But don’t spend too much time on this, because it’s definitely going to change a few times.
  5. Numerous iterations of the software, from less-reliable prototypes all the way up to “high-fidelity representations.” Test them until the software is solid and reliable.
  6. Comparing your software with current usability guidelines.
  7. Implementing the new software. And remember: Small mistakes will occur here, too.

Nerves, stress and training expenses

Companies find it most difficult to cope with the hidden costs, says Borchers – including nerves, stress, and training expenses that could have been avoided. Software that is fun to use doesn’t just contribute to a good and stimulating working atmosphere, it also ensures that your IT department is taken more seriously by other departments. After all, IT is the first place users go to to complain about bad software.