February 26, 2008


Taking Our Own Advice: Usability in Practice

We have completed a number of usability assessments for the website. However, when we were writing our latest blog post about usability, we realized we neglected to check in with our readers on the blog site. We had not assessed the usability of our own blog. Yikes!

But the great thing about a blog is that it is easy to test usability--all you have to do is ask your readers, and it's never too late to ask!

Within three days, we had developed an informal feedback form and heard from a small group of our visitors. (As we noted last week, "experts have confirmed that you can get useful feedback from 5 or 6 users.")

We asked our users:

  1. What information did you expect to obtain from the blog?
  2. How helpful has the information provided by the blog been for you?
  3. How clear is the information provided?
  4. How easy is it to navigate the blog?
  5. What else would you like to see on the blog?

What We Learned
Our respondents found the information we provide to be helpful and easy to navigate. However, they said the blog wasn't what they expected when they first visited. "I like the focus on new technology (wikis, RSS feeds, etc.), but thought I would also get program-related content (e.g., information on specific HIV/AIDS programs and policies)."

Users said they appreciated the new media focus. "I hear buzz words all the time, and now I can read what they really mean..." Another said: "Very informative and on a topic (new technology) that I wouldn't have thought I needed."

Our respondents repeatedly asked for more HIV-specific resources and personal accounts of how new technologies are changing HIV programming. They also asked for links to other government blogs and information about other government new media efforts.

Finally, they told us that the graphic we use for our exit disclaimers was distracting.

Now What?
The key to improving usability is to listen--and to respond--to your users. In the next few weeks, our blog posts will respond to our visitors' comments. We will:

  • Include at least two examples of new media being used directly in the fight against HIV/AIDS in each post. (But we need your help... send examples!)
  • Change the exit disclaimer graphic.
  • Modify the way we describe the blog, so that readers will know immediately that we are blogging about ways to use new media in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Our team referred to the resources we mentioned in last week's post, Usability - Websites and Beyond and found them to be helpful.

In closing, we are reminded of one of our favorite quotes by usability expert Steve Krug Exit Disclaimer: "How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people's lives just by doing our job a little better?"

Asking for feedback is one of those ways that we try to do our jobs just a bit better--in the hope that you can use something you find here to combat HIV/AIDS in the communities, or among the individuals, you serve. Feel free to send us your feedback anytime.

For our next post on March 4 we will report back on the Texting 4 Health Conference Exit Disclaimer and how it applies to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

February 19, 2008


Usability - Websites and Beyond

We designed knowing that visitors only spend up to 30 seconds scanning a webpage. People look for trustworthy, updated, and easy-to-read information. If they can't find it, they leave the page quickly.

Question: So how do we provide our users with what they want and in the way they want it?

Answer: Ask them!

We have to admit there are many times our web development team gets excited about a new design or product and puts it up before conferring with our own usability Exit Disclaimer consultant or, more importantly, our users. So, we have to remind ourselves to focus on usability.

To help us better understand usability, we spoke with two experts: Ginny Redish Exit Disclaimer, an independent consultant, writer, and trainer; and our consultant, Jason Rendel.

What is usability?
According to our colleagues at, "Usability measures the quality of a user's experience when interacting with a product or system--whether a website, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device. In general, usability refers to how well users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals and how satisfied they are with that process."

Ginny emphasized that usability is "an attribute of absolutely everything. It allows your audiences: 1) to find your site, blog, podcast, etc.; 2) to find what they want or need on the site; and 3) to understand what they find. Usability means that they can do all that in the time and with the effort that they think is worth spending." Ginny likes to describe usability as "a conversation between you and the people out there."

A key principle of usability is that it is user-centered Exit Disclaimer, meaning that users are involved throughout the development process. All of our time, energy, and good intentions must always come back our users--their needs, interests, preferences, and limitations.

How can you improve usability?
To ensure that your new media tool or website focuses on your users, you must involve them in planning, developing prototypes, writing content, and conducting usability tests. provides a good step-by-step visual overview for this process.

Start with asking your current and potential users for input--and remind yourself that you are not your users. As Jason told us, "the main point in building something for users is to build something they need. If what you build is burdensome to your users, they will find another way to get what they want [somewhere else]."

Assessing the site early and often is key. Once you have a prototype, even if it's on paper, make sure the site works for your users! This doesn't need to be costly, or take a lot of time. The experts told us that you can get useful feedback from just five or six users. At first, the team found that hard to believe--but we were wrong, and the the experts were right! (Just be sure to get feedback at different stages along the way...)

We've conducted successful usability tests for at several national HIV/AIDS conferences. We give participants different sample tasks and then observe how they use the site--what they click on, what their reactions are, where their eyes are drawn, and how they interact with the information.

Another usability technique is an expert review. This involves asking usability experts to evaluate the site and provide input about things that might be problematic.

We often think of usability for websites, but it is equally important for new media products. For example, if you're developing a podcast, ask some of your listeners questions such as:

  • How useful do you find the information?
  • Do you find the podcast easy to understand?
  • Does the podcast keep your attention?

Blogs can also benefit from usability testing (and we'll be doing that in next week's post). The beauty of a blog (and many other forms of social media) is that there are mechanisms inherent to the tool, such as the comments feature, that facilitate gathering information from users.

Ginny reminded us that we have to plan for, and test, more than the navigation. "From the beginning you should also be thinking about the content." She told us that we need to ask ourselves, "Whom are you talking to? What are your key messages? What do people need to hear?"

Usability and public health
Ginny shared with us an example of how usability can have an impact on public health. She explained, "The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries handles workers' compensation payments, which can be a complicated process. When they developed their website, they used a technique called "personas" to imagine their user--a young construction worker who has fallen off a ladder, is in pain, is worried about money, and is not very computer-savvy. The result is a very usable website that really considers the needs of their users."

Where can you go to learn more about usability?
At we find the following resources and organizations particularly useful:

In the meantime, we'll be conducting a quick assessment of this blog, and will report our findings in next week's post. Stay tuned!

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