tips for small businessIn the online world, usability is the craft of making a website work the way you want or expect it to. Today, guest blogger Danielle Cooley shares her advice on incorporating usability into your website, or other parts of your business. This post appears in our series Small Business 500.

Whether you're offering a product or service, it's important to keep the customer experience a priority. A large component of that experience is the ease with which customers can use your product or service. Usability is a measure of how effectively and efficiently users can accomplish their goals and how satisfied they are with the process. With that in mind, here are a few important things to remember.

1. You are not your user

You're a business owner. You're probably not a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a machinist. You don't think the same way they do, and your website designers and developers don't, either. Even if your product is one that you will use yourself (say, an online bill pay application or e-commerce site), there are almost definitely a lot of other customers who will also use it who are very different from you. If you want to understand how they think and work, you'll need to talk to them and observe their behaviors.

2. Surveys won't cut it

Although surveys have their place, they only tell you what people say they do. And what people say they do is not the same as what they actually do. If I asked you how long you spend brushing your teeth in the morning, you might thoughtfully and honestly reply, "Maybe about 2 minutes." But if I timed you brushing your teeth, it's probably closer to 30 or 45 seconds.

You weren't lying when you said 2 minutes - you just didn't know. Using observational methods is the only way to get accurate information about how people use your product.

3. Usability techniques are best applied early in the design process

Conducting a usability test on your product at the end of development leaves no time or money to make any changes. By testing your product prototypes early and often, you can ensure that you are following the right design path. And if you do need to make changes, you can make them much more inexpensively, before you've already invested a lot of time, money, and effort into design and development, or even release and promotion.

It's been shown that every $1 invested in usability early in the design process yields anywhere from $10 to $100 later in decreased development, training, and help center costs and increased revenue. (Bonus: Having actual user research data to work with means fewer fights over the conference table when making design decisions.)

4. Usability isn't just for web sites and software

By definition, everything you use — mobile phone, credit card statement, door handles, small appliances, even toothbrushes — must be usable. You know from your interactions with the world that some of these things are more usable than others. A confusing credit card statement might lead you to pay the wrong amount, possibly incurring extra interest. We've all accidentally turned on the wrong burner on the stove and seen people pulling door handles that are supposed to be pushed.

Such errors can usually be avoided with some simple design changes. The same techniques used to make web sites and software usable can make everything else usable, too.

5. Usability is just as important for your internal tools as it is for customer-facing products

In fact, the value of employees' increased efficiency with more usable products can be very easy to quantify. If you're purchasing third-party software, make sure it's easy to use. (Don't take their word for it or make inferences from watching a demo. Make them prove it with actual end users or test it yourself.) If you're building something in-house, it's still important to include usability studies early and often to ensure the final product will be one that your employees will understand how to use.

Diane Cooley's tips on usability for small business

—Danielle Gobert Cooley is an independent User Experience consultant with over 12 years of experience in a multitude of user research and usability analysis methods. She has applied her skills to a wide variety of applications, including hardware, Windows, web, telephone, and mobile. Her successful designs have been implemented at such large and small, public and private companies as Pfizer, Sargento Foods, Navy Federal Credit Union, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and MasterCard Worldwide.

usability tips for small business

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