Pervasive Usability – Planning For an Uncertain Future

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Usability is a phenomenon that has dramatically changed the way the products, including Websites, are designed and manufactured.

Traditionally, usability in the product development cycle was the responsibility of a Human Factors or Ergonomics specialist. Today, due to explosive demand for usable products, many product engineers, developers, designers and technical communicators have had to assume primary responsibility for usability engineering in their organizations. In few situations is this transference of responsibility more easily and successfully achieved than in the development of Websites.

Every stage in the design of a Website is an opportunity to boost or undermine the site’s usability. So, even if you’re up against a tight deadline, it’s important to ensure that time required for testing and fixing a site is incorporated into the production process of the Website. To compromise on testing can result in the production of an inefficient and ineffective product.

There are many principles that govern the usability of a site’s design. The design methodologies may differ, but at heart, all user-centered processes have the product’s usability as their main criterion. It’s important, though, that the design process supports usability without overburdening the Web developers who must live with it. As such, research has shown that products developed iteratively, leveraging proactive user design and feedback mechanisms, significantly outperform their standard counterparts. One such process is the Pervasive Usability model.

What Is Pervasive Usability?

As suggested by the term itself, Pervasive Usability advocates the application of methods to evaluate a design’s usability at every stage of the design process, keeping in mind the goals of the project and the users’ needs.

Pervasive Usability stands out from other usability testing methods as it can be conducted throughout the product’s lifecycle, not just in the preliminary development stages. It’s also unique because the steps involved in this method are quite simple, and can be less taxing on those conducting the test.

The 3 Steps Of Pervasive Usability Testing

The steps involved in a Pervasive Usability test are as follows.

Step 1. Analyze

The tester analyses:

  • user needs
  • targeted usability requirements
  • goals for the Website from both user and business perspectives
  • the existing version of the site (if any), and evaluate the proposed changes
  • competitors’ Websites
  • user interviews and surveys

Each Website has to address all these issues right from the start of the design process. Conduct interviews, field study and focus group discussions to gather information on the requirements of the users, as well as the business’s stakeholders. In this way, the analysis phase usually clears up most doubts regarding what results are desired from the site.

Conversely, misinterpretations of the inputs gathered in this phase can mar the credibility of your site in the long run. So, ensure that the Analysis stage is given its due attention, to ensure fewer problems in the stages that follow.

Step 2. Conceptualize

  • Conceptualize the site design at an abstract level
  • Ensure that the architectural layout of the site is also planned in detail before the design process is begun
  • Conduct a task analysis to identify the critical features of the site, and place them prominently in the site architecture
  • Create visual (mockups) or interactive (prototypes) representations of the site
  • Conduct evaluations of the prototype through focus groups, user tests, and cognitive walkthroughs
  • Repeat this process until the evaluation results and targeted goals for the site overlap

The conceptualization stage clears any remaining doubts about the design and navigation of the site. As prototypes and mockups are created and tested in this stage, the user is able to provide the designer with valuable feedback regarding the functionality and his expectations from the Website. Then, after extensive brainstorming, information can be written and rearranged according to the navigation flow.

The design of the user interface and the technical implementation of the user interface are different activities, requiring very different skills. Priorities can be laid down vis-à-vis the completion of the designers’ and developers’ responsibilities. The information architect’s role here is very important, as the navigation structure decided by them at this stage will set guidelines for the individual tasks of designers and developers. Analytical thinking and user empathy play a major role in deciding the fate of the site at this stage. The outcomes of stage 2 will be translated into the final product: a functional Website that’s ready to be hosted.

Step 3. Final Design, Hosting and Maintenance

  • In accordance with the prototype that results from the evaluation, create the final design
  • Conduct the usability test again to evaluate the site’s functionality
  • Even after the site’s launch, maintain scope for refining the site further with user feedback

Apart from the cosmetic changes done in this stage, the work of the designer and developer are now assembled into a single product, the final Website. Functionality and aesthetics now fall into place, and the last tweaks are made on both the fronts. The interactivity of the site is designed in such a manner that it retains visitors and provides them with what they want, when they want it — this could also include what we want users to want!

Building the Website and finally hosting it doesn’t complete the job: maintenance is of the utmost importance. As the Internet changes shape continuously, the site owner usually wants to keep the site updated with the latest information. This would require efforts on your side to feed in the latest information, and, where necessary, change the site design and/or functionality in a matter of hours. So, right from the start, it’s important to the Pervasive Usability approach that you build your Website so that it has scope for growth.

Accessibility Essentials

It should be obvious that the above-mentioned guidelines on following the Pervasive Usability approach must take into account accessibility issues. For example, using regional signs and symbols that are not accepted universally can reduce the acceptability of your Website across a global audience, just as providing audio files without textual descriptions can exclude the hearing impaired.

Once you decide to increase the reach of your site, your layout should be such that it takes only minor changes here and there to incorporate the new design and functionality, while simultaneously catering to the demands of users of differing capabilities across the world.

Pervasive Usability – The Solution for a Morphing Medium

With the change being the most permanent aspect of today’s Internet, it’s important to ensure that the basic identity of your Website is not lost. Change in the design of your site should not confuse the visitor, or worse: make them search for another option.

Move ahead with the changing environment, but at the same time, ensure that the basic paths you create for visitors to follow remain common in all your designs or iterations of the Website. This is one of the most important issues that affects the life of your site.

An integrated approach to usability saves money by catching problems early in the design life cycle at a point where changes can be implemented much more inexpensively. Any organization that takes these user-oriented principles to heart, and implements the Pervasive Usability principles, will be well on its way to creating usable products, and pleasing a host of satisfied customers. Ultimately, what matters the most is the user!

Suneet KheterpalSuneet Kheterpal
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Suneet has a postgraduate degree in Design from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, specializing in Web Media. Professional interests include Information Architecture, Usability Studies, Interface Design, Interaction design and planning. She writes for various print and online publications.

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