Rocket Surgery for Fun and Profit

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests… have you ever, suddenly and without warning, wanted to chuck your computer out the window? What was it exactly that caused you to have such a violent reaction? Was it a drop down menu on a website that didn’t stay open quite long enough for you to make your selection? A button that was too small to click? Long swaths of text that made no sense? A search engine that gave you 50,000 results but not one was the one you were looking for?


photo by Austin Kleon
via PhotoRee

In the early 1960s, brilliant engineers decided that computers should be able to talk to one another and, in 1989 after a series of papers were written and meetings were held on the topic, the internet was born. Since that time, billions – and billions – of websites have populated the universe known as the World Wide Web, and it is more commonplace today to have CEO give you his website address than his work phone number.

But for all the technological progress we’ve made on the web, have we forgotten the human side of things? What about those who depend upon websites to get information or complete tasks, such as making bank account transfers or researching information?

Shortly after the birth of the internet, its younger cousin, usability design, was born. Now, the topic of a fourth Toastmasters speech is about How to Say it, so I’m not going to weigh you down with a lot of jargon, but I do want to tell you that designing for the web so that real human beings can use it isn’t exactly rocket science. Heck, it’s not even brain surgery. In fact, according to usability expert Steve Krug, it ain’t Rocket Surgery, and neither is understanding how and why it should be done.

Usability is a term which describes the ease with which a person, commonly referred to as a user, can navigate, understand and transact with some generic thing, be it a car, a DVD player or, in my example, a website.

I’m not just talking about making the web more usable for those with disabilities… this is the art and science of ensuring that buttons can be clicked, menus can be utilized and terms can be searched. It is ensuring that visitors to the site know the purpose of the site and can complete the tasks they need to in order to make good use of your site. Ensuring that your site is usable translates directly into a better experience for your visitors and more profit for your company!

How exactly is this done? Like any other process, designing for usability follows a series of steps:

1. Determine the purpose of the site, the audience and the tasks needing completion
2. Conduct usability testing
3. Make any tweaks to the design that are needed
4. Repeat as necessary

According to usability experts, including Steve Krug, usability testing needn’t be expensive or particularly complicated – the whole objective is to notice how real people use your design and find any “speed bumps”. Don’t go by what people say… you have to actually see where they click, where they look, how they interpret what they see.

There are various ways of testing a design, of course, including eye tracking (noting where their gaze goes), click tracking and recording audio and video of them interacting with the site and talking out loud about what they are thinking. Once you have retrieved the results of your testing, you have a basis for resolving any issues that come up, ensuring that your design is both simple and delightful to use.

Sounds easy, right?

To make it even easier on designers, there are conventions that users have come to expect on websites. Some examples:

• Links that are underlined, or at least a different color than the rest of the text
• A link back to the home page
• A way to “go back” if you make a mistake
• A way to search

What does all this cost? While hiring a usability expert can run into the thousands of dollars, usability testing that you conduct yourself can be had for pennies or, in some cases, for FREE, through dozens of websites which offer testing tools that require little or no extra equipment. If you really want to test a design quickly and cheaply, you can even do what is referred to as “paper prototyping”, which is simply sketching your design out on a sheet of paper and asking your testers questions about the designs, such as “Where would you click to buy a widget?” This is a satisfying way to conduct testing, as it’s fast, cheap and tactile – your testers can literally touch your site and get a “feel” for how things work.

Once you have performed the necessary rocket surgery on your design, you can release it to the world, to a delighted and enamored public… or at least a group of users who return to your site again and again.

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