Should you skip usability in a time crunch?

Imagine you’re working on a web project that has high visibility. Lots of stakeholders at high levels are involved, and they’re getting impatient. They want to see results, and they want it now. You’ve thrown together a quick design, but you haven’t started coding yet and time is getting tight.

Now might be the time when you want to throw in the towel and scrap your planned usability efforts. The design is good, in your eyes, and the customer likes it. But is it a good idea to skip the usability?

Even if you’re fairly sure you’ve got a good design, if you’ve not had a real user try to use it, how can you be sure? The best designers in the world can’t pre-guess what a user will do–there are always gotchas that are obvious after the fact, when it’s incredibly expensive to fix. It’s better to be safe and get that user feedback BEFORE you’ve set it in stone. Would a scientist who’s in a hurry skip the data collection and start writing the paper? A little data collection here could go a long way towards improving the user experience.

But when you’re in a time crunch, how do you fit it in?

image of hand-drawn prototypeThere is a technique called paper prototyping that’s incredibly valuable, especially if applied before you start coding. Why not take a few days (or weeks, if you have it) and discover what those gotchas are before you start coding? The test doesn’t have to be big and complicated, with a formal test plan. You will gain incredibly valuable input just by showing your design to a few users, asking them a few questions, and having them pretend it’s a real screen and try to do a few tasks (“clicking” or “typing” on the paper)–while you pretend you’re a computer and feed them the next screen design. (Paper prototyping is even more valuable at the wireframing stage, before you have a design, but the same concept works after you’ve sketched out something in Photoshop.)

Jakob Nielsen, usability guru, says “the biggest improvements in user experience come from gathering usability data as early as possible in a design project. Measured usability can increase by an order of magnitude when you can change the project’s basic approach to the problem, change the feature set, and change the user interface architecture.”


Recommendations for success:

  1. If you need to skip something, skip the formality and the committee, not the test. Usability testing designed by committee takes a long time–and all the formal plans and reports are time consuming. When you’re in a hurry, be open to a more informal approach–and explain to your leadership why it’s necessary (to meet the timelines they want).
  2. Remember your goals for the project. Let those goals guide the tasks for the test. Select just a few key tasks (based on the goals) and use the same tasks for all the users.
  3. Don’t let naysayers get in the way. Whatever you do almost anywhere, there will be a few people who will question what you did or how you did it. Yes, you should listen to what they say because some of their feedback may be relevant and useful, but it shouldn’t keep you from getting real user feedback.
  4. Don’t set the design in stone too soon. Remember to be open to feedback and don’t get too attached to that design–and make sure the customer knows you may have to change it, but if you do, you’ll have real evidence to back it up.
  5. Remain flexible and be open to new ideas. If the user has issues with the design somewhere, open your mind and think of a new, better way to make things work. Good design is hard because sometimes you have to break your own misconceptions and habits. Don’t be afraid to step outside the box.

 I encourage paper prototyping in every environment–no matter what the political or time constraints. As Walt Disney says,

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”


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