Is it worth tackling usability issues when the opportunities for change are limited? Welcome to a day in my life:
Team: “Yep, that’s right. We can’t customize the system, but we want to improve the user experience.”
Let me back up a minute and give you some context for this exchange. I conduct usability testing for Information Technology Services (ITS) at the University of Virginia, and like most universities, we have many large, old systems that are not user-friendly. I suspect this situation sounds familiar to many of you. It is not the fault of any one person or thing, but change happens slowly. For example, at UVA we have:
- systems that allow little to no customization (think HR systems or “out of the box” solutions), or
- overly complex technical solutions that were not designed but evolved.
Despite these constraints, I never hesitate to tackle improving the usability of these systems. My goal is big picture, long-term cultural change. I want my organization to value the user experience and that kind of change happens one person at a time. When a team wants my help, I want to help, no matter how big the challenge, or small the change.
When I run usability tests for these teams, the results are two-fold:
- Technical staff learn and understand their users better. Big win!
- “Band-aid” usability fixes make things better. Small win, but worth it.
Below are two examples of “band-aid” fixes that improved our users’ experiences (and may inspire you to tackle similar issues at your place of business):
Example 1: “Non-customizable” Systems
System: Employee Benefits System
Issue: Users were not completing all of the steps to request educational benefits.
Challenges: System “fixes” were limited to text changes.
Solution: We updated the button labels with text like “Step 1 of 4” as shown below (some text is blurred for anonymity). The pages are not pretty and still confuse users, but it has reduced the number of incomplete requests. Small win!
Example 2: “Unexpectedly Complicated” Solutions
System: People Search
Issues: The University protects student privacy by not displaying student information in public search results. We built a separate private search (behind a log-in screen) which includes student data, but did not have the resources to overhaul the public search to integrate the two searches. This situation has created some usability issues:
- It is unexpected and unclear that students are excluded from the public search results.
- To find students, users must search once, and then click a button to kickoff the private search.
Challenge: The short-term fix was limited to adding a button to the public search results with a 27-character button label. A long-term fix is needed to integrate the two searches (not simple or quick).
Solution: Working with University Communications and usability testing button labels with students, we landed on a label of “Find All People (Login Req),” as shown below. This label did not address all the usability issues, but it made it clear to users that student information would be included in the results.
In summary, usability testing is not limited to the “right” situations or highly-customizable systems. Usability testing can make things better, even in small ways. The cost, time, and frustration saved from completing these “band-aid” usability fixes not only benefit everyone involved, but also help move us toward the larger, cultural change that we all hope to see within our organizations.
About the Author
Mary Cook is a usability project manager in Information Technology Services (ITS) at the University of Virginia and edUi’s chief volunteer wrangler. In her role at UVA, Mary conducts usability tests to ensure the University community has the best possible experience with interfaces to ITS/UVA services and systems. Outside of work, Mary loves to camp with her family at the Virginia State Parks, read detective novels, and cook fast and easy meals.