Just a short post today about what Usability guru Jakob Neilsen calls meta-usability, or the usability of usability reports. Says he,
“Usability findings have to be usable themselves: we need meta-usability.”
Nielsen goes on to list 5 tips for practitioners:
- Be Specific
- Don’t Blame the User
- Look for the Bigger Picture
- Help Identify Solutions
- Organize & Rank Findings
These tips can be used to help practitioners, as well as those who receive reports (whether from in-house people or external consultancies). I applaud this kind of move because I’ve seen some user study reports which were a nightmare of numbers and graphics which left me wondering what the point was.
I have a few tips of my own to add and welcome any comments of others who have their own strategies and tricks.
Be Specific by using screen capture
I’ve found that using screen captures of the subject of a problem or recommendation does wonders. Show it instead of just talking about it. Annotate images with arrows and text superimposed over the capture as needed. This allows people to capture more of your finding(s) by looking at the (sometimes-not-so) pretty pictures.
Blaming Users is Part of the Problem
I know that I’ve sometimes written or said when presenting a report “four users could not do ____” as if it’s their fault. This facilitates the kind of thinking that leads to bad user experience in the first place by placing the burden for the experience entirely on the user and when something doesn’t work it’s a User Error (with lots of degrading ideas like PEBKAC ”Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”). If we, who champion UX and Usability, continue to couch our reports in this kind of language we only perpetuate the problems we’re hired to solve. Perhaps good for the unscrupulous consultant who talks out of both sides of her mouth on the issue, but ultimately not good for anyone.
Be Strategic & Tactical
Just as Nielsen wants us to look for the bigger picture by not trying to “add many band-aids to a design that’s really suffering from a broken leg” we need to work on a strategic level as well as the detail-oriented tactical level. This goes with hand in hand with my next tip.
Help Identify Alternatives & Strategies
Often those who must use and implement user studies aren’t totally aware of the alternative design options or strategies to achieve their goals. I often couch recommendations in language like “if you want to pursue a strategy that focuses on social I would recommend x or y approach which would include c or d tactics. If you want to pursue a sponsored traffic approach I would recommend…” This kind of text in a report could be the launching point for a workshop together with the design & engineering team in order to decide which way to instantiate a given strategy.
Be Intimately Familiar with how Results Will be Used
Lastly to add to Nielsen’s list , we need to be intimately familiar with how the product of research will/can be used. In my PhD Thesis I talk about organizational routines being a key component of communicating across organizational boundaries. This is one way to understand exactly the kinds of ways in which research results can or will be used. This may be as straight-forward as timing (when is the next sprint starting?) or as a complex political situation about UX that existed before you arrived on the scene. If our attitude is of throwing it over the fence or handing it off (a kind of Transfer) then we’ve essentially blamed the other party as user for any problems with implementation. We wouldn’t stand up for that with users, don’t do it to your colleagues/clients. Instead see how your recommendations must fit into the existing environment like a Tetris player carefully rotating and placing their pieces into the places that will result in the kinds of desired actions (a kind of Fit, which is why the main title of my thesis is “Fit Not Transfer”). This is what meta-usability is all about.
Image courtesy of Flikr/Adam Flecter under CC license.