Information for designers and interactive developers - Issue 2 - May 2008
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Usability (is) for everyone
I know by experience that a lot of the people involved in the development of new sites, applications and software are reluctant to incorporate usability in their development process. Sometimes because they're afraid they lose valuable time, sometimes because they don't know it, ...

I would just like to show you what's usability's really about (according to me anyhow ;-). And let you decide if... usability is for everyone, or not.

When I say usability. What do you think of? Overpaid consultants, Nielsen or maybe even of Peter Morville's User Experience honeycomb (see illustration 1)?

Illustration 1 - Peter Morville's user experience honeycomb (reused from Illustration 1 - Peter Morville's user experience honeycomb (reused from

So what's it really about?
Well, let's take a look then at how Wikipedia defines usability. Wikipedia describes it not only as a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use, but also as a set of methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process (see illustration 2).

Illustration 2 - The usability engineering lifecycle (Copyright Dr. Deborah J. Mayhew)
Illustration 2 - The usability engineering lifecycle (Copyright Dr. Deborah J. Mayhew)

But what is it now: a quality attribute or a collection of methods?
Usability is both and more... Because for me the essence of usability is communication. And I see the prototypes as "shared spaces" that stimulate discussions and decisions between internal and external stakeholders and between the developers and the end users. And this collective brainstorming will eventually create easier to use websites and software.

Let me illustrate this with a little anecdote. This week I had to present my first set of prototypes for a conversion optimization project for a big Belgian discounter to a mixed audience of +20. And the sales people looked at the prototypes and saw conversion, the marketing people looked at the prototypes and saw conversion and branding, the functional analysts looked at the prototypes and saw uses cases and the developers looked at the prototypes and saw a lot of code. So with one set of prototypes I was simultaneously communicating with all of those profiles and at the end everyone

Who can prototype?
Anyone, as long as he or she knows the website or software development goals and current state. And I really mean anyone, ranging from business analysts over developers, marketers, software engineers ... to user interface designers. Because prototypes are an easy-to-learn, universal language: they are a merely the visualization of the requirements. (see illustration 3)

Illustration 3 - A paper prototype (reused from
Illustration 3 - A paper prototype (reused from

Do you need expensive software to prototype?
No. Almost any tool can be adapted to create effective prototypes. During my career I've created prototypes with specialized tools as Axure, Omnigraffle and Visio, (expensive) graphic tools as Illustrator, Office applications as PowerPoint, Excel (see illustration 4) and Word and even with pen and paper (see illustration 3). So changes are that you have already a prototyping tool on your computer without even knowing it.

Illustration 4 - A prototype made with Excel (reused from
Illustration 4 - A prototype made with Excel (reused from

When should you prototype?
As early and as often as possible. Prototyping really is an iterative process. But to get the most out of it you should start prototyping at the start of any development process as a recent study by MauroNewMedia (one of the leading American usability firms) has shown. Just one example of their conclusions: "For every $10 spent defining and solving critical usability problems early in development using professional usability research, you will save about $100 in development costs."

I would like to end by quoting by Bill Buxton (who is a principal researcher for Microsoft Research and a pioneer in human-computer interaction):
«My perspective is that the bulk of our industry is organized around the demonstratable myth that we know what we want at the start, and how to get it, and therefore build our process assuming that we will take an optimal, direct path to get there. Nonsense. The process must reflect that we don't know and acknowledge that the sooner we make errors and detect and fix them, the less (not more) the cost.»

Some interesting links:

About Peter Coopmans
Peter started his web career with in '99, one year before the takeover by eBay. He was hired to set up the support department, but very soon he became their Dutch editor. After, he has worked as a designer, webmaster and html-integrator for several companies and agencies to end up as an Information Architect and Usability Consultant (self-employed and for Emakina). But what's in a name? Because he considers himself also to be a user interface/experience designer... Anyway Usability was his first love ever since he has read "Designing Web Usability" by Jacob Nielsen in 2000, but he still married Annemie. And so he became the proud father of 3 lovely children. To relax, Peter climbs mountains. ;-)
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