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Apr 4, 2008 | Updated Mar 29, 2023

Turning Usability Findings into Design Changes

You’re coming up for air after an intense usability study. Your usability consultant has delivered actionable findings and recommendations to your team that you know would really improve the user experience. Now what?

Here are some tips we’ve learned from clients and from our own experiences working within companies to increase the likelihood that: 1) design changes will happen at all, and 2) the changes will be grounded in study findings. It’s helpful to think about some of these tips before embarking on a usability testing project.

1. Involve UI owners in the testing. Seeing is believing:

Invite key design stakeholders, developers, and business managers to attend usability sessions. When the owners of user interface schedules, priorities, designs, and budgets witness usability problems and barriers first-hand, making the case for changes after a study is much easier. Try to get stakeholders to observe more than one session, and make session recordings available to them after the study. Involve them in reviewing test plans and participant recruiting screeners, and definitely invite them to results presentations.

In some of the more gratifying projects we’ve worked on, UI design and development stakeholders were fully involved in the testing and empowered to act on results, and we were able to work together with them to prioritize problems and create design solutions almost immediately following the testing sessions.

2. Triage and prioritize study findings

Your usability findings and recommendations report may contain issue severity and scope ratings to help you differentiate high-impact issues from relatively minor problems. Work on building team consensus around what the high priority usability issues are and why it is important to fix them. The pay now or pay later rule applies: do not make the mistake of sweeping big issues under the rug and working only on numerous minor, cosmetic problems. Design changes that address widespread, high-severity problems, even if painful to implement, nearly always improve overall product usability more significantly in the long run.

3. Find and empower a user experience champion

We work with these people all the time. They obsess about user experience and usability, bring us in to help them evaluate it objectively, stay up at night designing comprehensive solutions, and then work with their teams to push the right solutions through. (Then they usually test again to make sure they got it right.) These champions can be found at all levels on the organization chart, but they need to have sufficient authority to impact change (or like-minded friends in high places). Effective champions can cross functional or political boundaries in an organization or on a team so that the right resources are applied toward solutions. For example, a technical writer can communicate a method or workaround to users who bother to consult Help or an Info link, but a better solution may be to engage a UI designer or developer to fix a confusing layout or control in the first place.

4. Talk about ROI when you have supporting usability data

Numerous studies and usability experts have demonstrated that fixing usability issues can have a high return on investment. Among other things, usability gains can improve click-through and conversion rates, decrease support costs, and increase customer and brand loyalty. If you have usability data that can be directly or indirectly linked to your company’s ROI, by all means use it to help persuade others that making design changes is a sound idea.

5. Get to know your web analytics team

For web projects, couple usability findings with web metrics. Web metrics may show, for example, where drop-off or abandonment rates are occurring, and usability findings can demonstrate through direct observation of users how usability problems occur within those pages or processes. Linking these sources of information together in a presentation helps make a powerful case about the need for design change.

6. Depending on your development culture, create usability bugs

In some development environments, design changes occur only after bugs are logged in a defect-tracking system. The trick to entering usability bugs is isolating the issues identified in testing into multiple, single bugs and communicating clear steps to resolve each of them. If a problem is complex or the issues are interrelated, resolution steps will need to be hashed over outside of a bug database, but at least entering bugs in the system ensures that usability problems are visible beyond findings reports and presentations.

Enter usability bugs as quickly as you can following testing to keep the momentum going, especially when other development team members can easily recall recently-observed usability problems. A usability lead or champion should be at the table at bug triage meetings so important usability issues and potential design solutions are not deferred to the next release or, worse yet, forever.

Caution: it is not acceptable in some development cultures to enter usability or user experience “bugs.” Before doing so, meet with test engineers or other owners of the defect tracking system to see what is culturally acceptable (and/or changeable). The person entering usability bugs must also understand team bug rating or severity-assignment norms that dictate whether an issue even gets looked at during rapid-fire triage meetings.

In cultures where entering usability bugs is not acceptable, consider creating a prioritized list of proposed usability findings-based design changes, the rationale behind each, and then meet with team design/development stakeholders to review them.

7. Press the flesh

You may find yourself in a position of having to sell usability study results and design recommendations to others in your organization. Get out, attend meetings, and speak to key stakeholders and project team members. It can be helpful to create customized versions of usability reports and findings for different audiences. For example, some stakeholders may only skim an executive summary of prioritized issues—make sure it packs a punch.

Establish good relationships and credibility by learning to speak in terms familiar to developers, customer-facing sales and marketing personnel, and other business decision-makers. Make sure the recommended solutions based on usability findings are realistic and actionable, and be careful not to alienate others when pushing for change because you did not take enough time to understand their perspective. In development environments, staying up on industry trends, technologies, and development challenges facing a team helps usability advocates build credibility.

8. Revisit test results between releases when writing new requirements

It’s a good idea to dust off usability study findings following a release or iteration. It’s common to find that some, but not all, of the issues identified through usability testing have been addressed. As requirements are being generated for the next development cycle, check progress and make sure design or usability requirements based on previous testing results find a place at the table.

If possible, test more than once and revise prototypes or designs between usability testing milestones. Setting expectations at the onset of a project that proposed design changes will result from each usability study helps ensure that time and resources to specify and implement the changes get baked into project plans. Iterative testing is also one of the most effective ways of ensuring that you are creating usable products.

9. Personify the problems observed in usability findings

Usability studies uniquely draw from the observed experiences of representative users interacting with a product, site, device, or service. There is power in observing people interacting with a system, and the people or customers observed should not get lost in the reporting. Usability reports and presentations are the most impactful, in our opinion, when they illustrate problems via representative video clips of participants, when they contain participant quotes, and when they tell a compelling story about both the strengths and weaknesses of the tested design. Assuming that the right people were recruited for a study, the right tasks were tested, and the problems that study participants faced are accurately and concisely described in the reporting, solutions to the problems can more easily sell themselves.

10. Be candid with your usability consultant about your goals

Usability studies and findings can be tailored to suit specific needs: As you are working with a consultant or internal usability team to scope and design a study, make sure they are aware of any explicit and implicit goals you have for the results. A strong need to “sell” usability and design change within an organization that is new to usability testing may dictate a more formal writing style and tone in the final report, while teams that are old hands at usability testing may prefer a more direct style that gets to actionable results quickly. Let the usability consultant know whether a document or presentation will need to stand on its own and have a life internally or externally after the study.

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