Archive for the 'Usable tools' Category

Can usability pay off your mortgage, part 3

house-smlMortgage-ometer report

Back in March I wrote about some usable software from United First Financial called the Money Merge Account that helps you pay off your mortgage faster. I started using this software in March and by the end of April, we’d made an extra payment of $13,994.08 on the mortgage. I’m amazed and excited. With a few tweaks in our monthly spend plan that haven’t really affected our cash flow or living style, the time to pay off the mortgage has gone from 14 years down to 3.17 years!

The software is overall very usable, as I thought it would be. The learning curve to use it is short, help is readily available and it’s straightforward to implement the action plan.

Ease of building your action plan

My one point of confusion was on the credit cards because I always pay my balance off each month. The system does not allow you an option to do that. If you put in a balance on your credit cards, it will include monthly credit card payments, even if the interest rate is high on your cards. If you want to pay off your credit cards, you have to enter in a balance of $0.00, then enter in a new action with the estimated monthly amount you normally spend. When you pay the bill, you simply replace your estimated amount with the real balance you’re paying.

It’s very easy to enter your budget items and action plan, but not so easy to know what changes would help you reach your goal faster. What I did was to play with different options to see how they affected the goal.

I tried adding a savings account with a higher interest rate, which I thought would make things go faster, but it actually lengthened the time to pay off the mortgage. It doesn’t make sense, so I’m not sure why that happened.

Implementing the action plan

Sometimes the action plan changes really fast and sometimes it retracts actions that it told you to do–the system can seem a little szichophrenic at times. After every action you take, the system recalculates the action plan. I wish it would be a little more stable–a couple times I was getting excited to make that big monthly payment and all of a sudden it had moved to two months out! Then when I came back later, that action had returned to the plan. It would be nice if the plan were a little more stable. 


Their support is awesome–they have an live chat button on the main page of the application labeled “Need help? Live chat” which I was reluctant to click on, but I did get stuck once and decided to give it a shot. They answered my question quickly and I was on my way again. They might want to change the wording on that button. Users are generally reluctant to admit they “need help”, and I was the same way. I had to really get stuck before I’d click. Once I’d tried it and found it a good experience, I was less reluctant to click on it again, but still hesitant.

All in all, though, I couldn’t be happier with my Money Merge Account from United First Financial. My hubby and I are dreaming about what we could do with our lives once our house is paid off.  

Previous articles on the Money Merge Account:

A Wish list for Axure

wish-listI’m in the midst of prototyping a virtual credit card terminal in Axure and some of my most fervent wishes are resurfacing, so rather than sit here and stew about it, I am going to put my wishes out there so perhaps Axure will hear them and do something about it? Don’t get me wrong–I love Axure and am so thankful to have it. It makes life so much easier. But man, if it could only …

Some of this might already be done in a newer version (that I don’t have yet), but gosh I wish it would do the following:

  1. Allow me to select a word or two and make them a hyperlink like real web pages do. It’s such a pain to have to put a box over the text I want to hyperlink. (Take some lessons from WordPress!)
  2. Make mouseover effects easily–like change the color of a table cell or some text when moused over to indicate its clickability. Right now to change the color of a table cell, I’d have to overlay a dynamic panel and try to align it perfectly with the table cell and manage the states by going to separate windows. And then when the table cell changes size or shape, I’d have to realign everything and change all the states and … it’s just too much work. I have a lot of pages to do and I’m in a hurry to get this prototype done.
  3. Put controls such as radio buttons and images IN a table cell like you can on a real web page. So if the table cell moves (like it tends to do when you’re wireframing), the control or image moves with it and you don’t have to go realign everything.
  4. Change the look of the buttons–and allow for a few different types of buttons.
  5. Use real cascading style sheets (CSS) like real HTML pages do, so I could import my style sheet and use the styles from my own CSS–and have them in the resulting prototype as real CSS styles. Wow that would be nice.
  6. Make cleaner, more usable HTML, so we don’t have to have someone go back and recreate the HTML page from scratch and end up with a different look and feel than the wireframe. (Using real CSS would sure help.)
  7. Not make a new image if I copy and paste an image from one spot to another. It’s the same image, folks! Why have a billion different images that look exactly the same? In fact, why not use an image library in a common images folder shared across pages (like, um, WordPress allows you to do) so if you want to use the same images on several pages, you can.
  8. Allow me to set an action for several elements at once. Say I want the user to be able to select a row in a table, for example. Right now I have to go to every cell in the table and set the action for that individual cell. If the table has a lot of columns, it takes quite a while just to set the actions for one row.

If you use Axure and agree with my suggestions, let Axure know or leave a comment here so that they know that it’s more than just one user’s wishes.

ProQuo: An easier way to get rid of junk mail

Several months ago, I found a site that claimed it would help reduce the amount of junk mail I get. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I thought I’d give it a try and see how things went. What I’ve noticed since I started this is that I get a lot less junk mail–between that and signing up for e-billing for all the bills I can, on some days we don’t have ANYTHING in the mail box. My goal is to get rid of all the unnecessary paper and junk that we get every day.

The problem with junk mail is we all get on a lot of lists. It takes a lot of vigilance to get your name removed from all those mailing lists (let alone to know what mailing lists you’re on!)

ProQuo helps you discover which lists you’re on and allows you to get off of most of them with just a click of a button. There are some lists where you have to go on another web site to opt out of their list, but wow does this simplify things. It’s not a one-time shot–you have to go back a few times and get off new mailing lists your name slipped onto, but it is awesome.

The site is organized very well with big buttons that are clearly labelled. You can make sure you still get the catalogs and mail that you want, and get off all the rest of the lists that you don’t want.

Check it out:

World Usability Day is here–have a cookie!

For the first time since I became a usability evangelist, I’m not presenting anything to anyone in honor of World Usability Day, with Usability cookies as treats for those who attend. The Usability cookies were awesome–we had one of my friends who runs QT Cakes make sugar cookies–and on each frosted cookie was written one of the six components of usability:

  • Effective
  • Efficient
  • Learnable
  • Memorable
  • Error-free
  • Easy (or was it “Satisfied”? I wish we’d taken pictures before we ate them!)

It was always entertaining to watch which cookie each person would pick. But when you work from home, how do you pass out cookies to your colleagues? 

So … What is usability?

Usability is not just about “ease of use”, although that is an important element of it. Usability really evaluates all the components on the cookies:

  • Effective: Can the user complete the tasks the tool or web site is intended for? For an e-commerce web site, can the users actually purchase something on the site? For an informational web site, can the user find the answers to their question? For a cellular phone, can the user make a phone call? These sound like no-brainers, but you’d be surprised how often you encounter an e-commerce web site that has one or more barriers to completing a purchase. You can also measure supplemental tasks, like can the user schedule an appointment on their phone or change the ring tone? Or for an e-commerce web site, can the user find the product specifications? If you suspect the user might have difficulty with some tasks, make sure you test those, but also test tasks you think are very straightforward–you’d be surprised what you’ll learn.
  • Efficient: How long does it take users to complete their task? Even if the user can make a purchase on the site, if it takes 30 minutes for them to complete their purchase (and I’ve seen this happen in a real usability test of a real web site!), how likely is it that they’re going to buy? You need to make your software/website/tool in such a way that the user feels like they breezed through it. Notice that I said “the user feels like”–it really isn’t that important what the measured time was. What’s more important is whether the users feel like it went fast (or waaaay too slow). User perception is key.
  • Learnable: Can an inexperienced user who has never seen this before figure out how to use it? How long does it take them to figure it out? Do they have any misperceptions about how it should work? If you see any of that, it’s a problem with the affordance of your software/website/tool. Affordance is a user’s expectation of how something should work. Users expect something that looks like a button to be clickable. A doorknob turns to open the door. Blue underlined text is expected to be clickable. The Help button (or link) is expected in the upper right portion of the screen. If a system follows expected conventions, it’s more likely that the user can learn how to use it fairly quickly. Learnability is more than just following conventions, though. It has to do with placing things consistently, following the user’s regular workflow, and sometimes thinking outside the box. Some of the easiest things to use (take the iPhone, for example) didn’t follow convention.
  • Memorable: Can a user walk away from it and return a month later and still remember how to use it? Do they remember where to find everything–or do they have to go through a re-learning process? Memorability is especially important for applications that are used infrequently (such as, say, an e-commerce web site).
  • Error-free: No system is completely error-free, but is the system fraught with bugs? That will cause a frustrating user experience and reflect badly on your company. Also, what happens when a user encounters a problem? Does the system offer the user a solution to fix the problem, or leave the user without any option but to give up? How are error messages phrased? Do they blame the user, or the system? No user wants to be blamed, but systems have no feelings, so why do we so often encounter error messages that blame the user?  Even if it WAS the user’s fault, there’s no point in making an issue of it. Hey, they’re human! Humans make mistakes. Be kind and forgiving to your users and they will appreciate that (and buy more from you).
  • Easy and satisfying: A system should not just be easy to use, but also pleasant. The user should feel they accomplished something and have a sense of pride and satisfaction once they’ve completed their task. Many systems leave their users battered and frustrated both with themselves and the system. Users have a tendency to blame themselves so an unusable system can wear down their sense of self worth.

For more thoughts on usability, here are some recommended resources for you:

What else can you do on World Usability Day?

Recommendations from the World Usability Day web site.

Experiences with DimDim Free Web Conferencing

I decided of the three free web conferencing tools I’d looked at, I’d decided to give DimDim a try. The first time I tried it, I had issues with sharing my desktop, but I heard back from their customer service folks and they said to check the box that says “do not show this again”, so I did. The 2nd time I tried it, I still had to click the “Allow” button three times on the popup (after clicking the “do not show this again” checkbox) before it shared my desktop, but the third time I tried it, the popup didn’t even show up. It just worked!

What I like about DimDim:

  • You don’t have to install any software to attend a meeting! That’s awesome! The only thing that requires a software install is sharing your desktop. Attendees don’t even have to register. You only have to register on the site if you want to host a meeting.
  • They do seem to have given some thought to usability and the customer carewords factor. It’s got a very simple layout, with large, easy-to-find-and-click buttons and clear labels. They use icons very effectively to help users interpret the areas of the screen. The features are named with user-friendly words. You can see all the meetings you’ve scheduled, and very easily start or join a meeting.
  • Web conferencing is really easy. I’ve only done a couple quick tests, but we found we could draw on the whiteboard, and my participants could see and hear me via the video/microphone on my computer without dialing into a conference line. (I couldn’t hear them because neither of my helpers had a microphone.) There is a conference line available, though, so how does that work with the folks who are just using microphones on their computers? Not sure.
  • Chatting was effective and easy. I would say something through the microphone, and my helpers would chat back at me.
  • You can easily see who’s there in the list of participants on the left. I also discovered participants can change their “mood” to agree (thumbs up), or disagree (thumbs down), leave for a moment (be right back icon), etc. I’m not sure how many users will find that little feature because it’s not obvious, but perhaps it’s not that necessary either.

What I don’t like:

  • It’s awkward how the desktop sharing software installation happens without warning during the meeting. My friend was really confused when I quit talking and “disappeared” on her just when I said I was going to share my desktop with her. I didn’t know it was going to happen, either, because they’d been so adamant about “no software to install” on the web site, so it totally took me by surprise. 
    • A better way to handle this might be to inform the meeting host right away when they schedule or initiate the meeting that they will need to install some software in order to share their desktop during the meeting, and would they like to install it ahead of time. If it’s at the beginning of a spontaneous meeting, you need to inform the participants what’s happening (or better yet, let the leader of the web conference say something to their participants before starting the install). This is obviously something they didn’t usability test this or they would have noticed a glaring problem there.
  • It’s great that DimDim is browser based, but then again, the problem is that it’s browser based, so if for some reason your browser crashes (even if the reason is unrelated to DimDim), your meeting is gone. That’s scary if you’re giving a demo of some web-based application, for example. Maybe in some cases, installing software may be a good thing, at least for the presenter.
  • For some reason, my boss wasn’t able to join the meeting when I tried to use it for a real meeting. Yet, my other coworker (who’s in San Fran) was able to get into the meeting even after I’d given up and ended the meeting. My boss says he tried 4 times over 10 minutes and it wouldn’t let him in. I’m not sure what’s up with that, but now I can’t use it for any meetings with my boss. Sigh.

That’s a short summary of my brief experiences with DimDim. Overall, it’s a very usable tool, and it seems to work pretty well, once you have the desktop sharing software installation taken care of.