The importance of a user friendly system

Sadly sometimes language takes a bit of a battering. The term user friendly is a prime example. It originally meant anything which made computers easier to use by beginners. To some extent it still does although the term has now been widened to mean any aspect of computing, including online help programs, and to include any person, beginner or experienced. But the expression has also been hijacked being used in other areas of life including those outside the realm of computing. User friendly is now somewhat of a cliché.

One of the biggest problems facing IT users today is not the creation of testing programs but rather convincing the users to try and fly. There is a great deal of so-called technology available with more coming onto the market all the time. But then the problem arises. Is the material designed to test performance strengths and weaknesses, user friendly? The problem so often is not that the software doesn’t work – it does – but that the operators won’t use it.

This is the nub of the matter. The designers and testers are IT specialists. The workers in the fields are not. What appears user friendly to the specialists is far from user friendly to the workers. Thus the importance that testing needs to examine the ‘friendliness’ of the material from the point of view of those who will be expected to use it.

This is where the expression, ‘usability testing’ is applied. It’s a form of testing to ensure that the program is usable but not by the experts but rather by the people on the ground who need to safely and successfully operate the system. Can these people easily use the program? Is it for them, user friendly? Does it suit the purpose it was created for? Does it fit into their processes?

It is possible for a new piece of software to be created exactly according to the design specifications. It works well and does everything it is required to do yet it fails because the staff involved can’t or won’t use it. That software is not user friendly and has failed the usability testing process.

Leaders need to understand that coders, as brilliant as they might be with their IT skills and imagination, are not the people who will finish up using the program. Coders are not the end users. Hence we see the intrinsic and vital importance of usability testing.

In fact so important is usability testing that some argue it should not be left to any tester but to someone with specific knowledge of the skills available to the average user. It’s not a question of whether the program works but if it works for the typical user. That needs a specialist tester, a User.

Usability testing, like much of the testing of a system is left to the end.  But, this is actually not when you want to test usability.  By then the project team has put a whole lot of work into creating the system and potentially has to now go back and rework a lot of it to suit the end user.

Usability testing can actually be done simulating use with PowerPoint slides or mock-ups created in other available software or even paper mock-ups.

And the most important aspect of usability testing is the money involved. If new software works well but is rejected by the users, large even very large amounts of money are at stake. Any company must see the potential profit or loss riding on the success of the new software. Usability testing suddenly becomes hugely important in the overall scheme of things.

Do you take usability testing as seriously as you need to?

Leave a comment below and tell us your tips on usability and usability testing.

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