At PCA Predict, we’re not primarily in the business of consulting, but we are in the business of increasing our customers conversion rates through better data quality and improved user experience.
A question I get asked frequently is “what are the best UX tools that will improve my site?”
Aside from the obvious response of using our address lookup, email validation and mobile phone validation tools to improve your checkout or registration form, and skipping over the potentially self-serving option of hiring a usability consultant, this question often raises a few more questions. I always have to make the point that, just like having a good oven doesn’t make you a brilliant chef, or having an expensive camera doesn’t make you a good photographer, UX tools themselves will only take you so far.
A lot of businesses want quick solutions to their problems, but almost all of the time, good usability is entirely contextual. It relies on you being able to empathise with your users and really factoring their feedback into your design process.
Having said that, tools are a really important part of ensuring you can perform user testing activities and learn enough about your users to empathise in the first place. The key rules are:
- Get feedback
- Design improvements
- Test them
- Release and repeat
As such, I’ve listed a couple of tools that I wouldn’t want to be without when going through a typical user centred design process. The focus here is free or low-cost tools.
There may be some division over this as there are certainly other feature-rich, behemoth-like solutions out there, but I have found it a lot easier to start small, and sell the benefits of usability tools by proving their value to your team and your management before asking for tens of thousands in license fees. It also allows anyone to get started.
1. Getting feedback
Coffee and bagels
It may seem like a cop-out to begin with something as simple and offline as a small incentive and a notepad, but the reason we involve users in the process is because we all need perspective. You can come into a project with the best of intentions, but give it a month and everyone involved will have formed some preconceptions. Involve users early and often in your processes to keep everyone user-focused. Those with larger budgets will have a recruiter on standby to get appropriate participants into your lab for user testing, but when this isn’t an option, nothing beats a bit of guerrilla testing.
Hang around a coffee shop or shopping centre, with your laptop, tablet or paper prototypes, and simply ask people if they have a minute to tell you what they think. Walk them through designs. Get them a coffee or a snack. Hell, buy them a beer if you think it’ll get them to talk to you (and if they’re old enough). It does take patience and a lot of friendliness, but for the cost of a few drinks and snacks, you’ll have a wide range of fresh user input in just a day.
Another thing you can do is to use new starters to your company to test things, as they will still be in a period of ‘useful ignorance’ before they form any preconceptions.
Primary uses: Cheap user feedback, quick turnaround
URL: Some ideas
There’s a reason some companies make it difficult to get in touch with them to feedback. It’s a dark pattern of sorts, usually driven either by a push to make users “self-serve” (i.e. call centres can’t handle the load) or because they have their heads in the sand – no news is good news right?
The UX practitioner needs to take the good, the bad and the ugly, and there’s usually more of the last two when you get down to it. Users are at least twice as likely to complain about a negative experience than praise a positive one. This is simply due to the fact that negative experiences are processed with more scrutiny in the brain, meaning the conscious information is more comprehensive.
Something as simple as a feedback form on your site can greatly improve your chances of picking up on the issues users are facing. UserReport is more intrusive than some, and there’s not a huge amount of customisation to be done to the question set, but it’s a start. Better to allow some users to feedback than capture nothing. Just remember to turn off the pop-up option.
Primary uses: Constant feedback at interaction source
14-day free trial / $89 USD monthly for standard account / More options
Usabilla would be my preferred option for capturing user feedback at source. It keeps the questions simple and allows users to feedback as simply as based on how your site makes them feel, thereby simultaneously providing a ‘Voice of Customer’ solution. It allows them to go into more detail if they want, but it doesn’t force them.
The first thing you see when you elect to feed back is an option to comment on the entire site, or click on an element in the page (segmented based on your markup) and feed back on that alone. This allows you to build a picture of which page elements are affecting your users’ moods, and allow you to target these for improvement. An elegant solution.
Primary uses: Constant feedback at interaction source
2. Designing solutions
Pens and paper
Another analogue cop-out, but every good UX practitioner I’ve worked with has had a supply of Sharpies (or similar) on standby. It’s incredibly important to quickly and efficiently communicate ideas to your team and gather feedback. Good old pen and paper is perfect for this.
It also has the side-effect in the early days of keeping the time you spend on any one solution to a minimum. This means you don’t get too attached to any one idea and can quite easily and without hesitation scrunch a solution up and throw it away, allowing for the next iteration of an idea to be developed quickly.
Primary uses: Sharing ideas, iterating quickly
URL: Get some
14-day free trial / $199 USD
Wireframing is one of the primary tasks of the UX practitioner. Quickly visualising and iterating ideas for how users will move through a site, and what their interface might look like saves a great deal of time and overhead in putting together high-fidelity designs to test, or even developing various options. It’s important to be quick but comprehensive. A lot of people stuck in the enterprise-centric world are still using Microsoft Visio for this task. If you have no choice, then it’ll do, but it’s akin to designing in PowerPoint. That is to say, professionals just don’t.
Enter OmniGraffle; Visio’s distant cousin that got all the good genes. You can diagram, wireframe, and even create simple prototypes with great ease. Everything looks professional and clean even when you’re working on a rapid turnaround, due to OmniGraffle’s intelligent rulers, guides and distance markers. It takes the hassle out of layout so you can focus on ideas, and I can’t recommend it enough. Also, there’s a huge library of both free and paid stencils available at Graffletopia.
Primary uses: Professional-looking documentation, iterating quickly
Axure RP Pro
30-day free trial / $589 USD
For the instances where you need to do more in-depth testing on the interactions between pages and how a user’s journey takes shape, Axure is the heavy-lifting option. Whilst simpler than OmniGraffle in terms of wireframing (curves are atrocious to create), you can build entire pages in Axure with rich interactions and animations, meaning you can really get a feel for how people respond when interacting with your ideas in context – it’s just more authentic than looking at static designs.
I wouldn’t personally recommend using it for day-to-day wireframing (that’s sort of akin to attacking an ant with a bazooka), but some people do use it for this. It’s whatever works better for you really.
Primary uses: Demonstrating journeys, trialling interactions, rapid user testing
3. Testing solutions
Free limited account / $1990 USD annually
When you think you’ve got things right but need to test remotely and at volume, Optimal Workshop is one of the better options that you can trial for free, but also is relatively low cost for an annual subscription by comparison to other tools.
It provides three key modules:
Optimal Sort – open, closed and hybrid card sorting activities to formulate your Information Architecture
TreeJack – test the efficacy of your navigational structure
ChalkMark – Record user clicks on areas of a design or wireframe and build heat maps of this collective activity
As well as a new tool (in beta at the time of writing – July 2015) called Reframer, which is a novel new way of making notes and recording observations as a user researcher. You can send out surveys yourself, or use their recruiting facility to find participants.
Primary uses: Formulating and testing Information Architecture / structure, click heatmaps, observation capture
Free limited account / Pay-as-you-go / $99 USD monthly
UsabilityHub is another great remote testing option with an innovative array of options. The free community account is a model of fair play based on a karma system. For every test you complete for someone else, you earn 1 credit for a response to one of your own tests. You can purchase credits on a pay-as-you-go system (for example 100 credits will cost you $85 USD) or you can subscribe to UsabilityHub Pro, which costs $99 USD per month. All options provide four key modules:
Five Second Test – Your design is showed to the user for 5 seconds only, after which a series of questions you specify is asked to gauge first impressions
Click Test – Where a user clicks on your design is recorded, in line with a question you ask at the outset
Nav Flow Test – Tests the efficacy of your navigational structure at a page level, with success and failure recorded at each step
Preference Test – Asks the participant to choose between two design alternatives
Primary uses: First impressions testing, testing Information Architecture / structure, click heatmaps, preference tests
15-day free trial / $79.99 USD
Almost an afterthought, Silverback is a session capture tool built by a UX practitioner, for UX practitioners. If you’re on Mac OS X, it’s a really simple, out of the box solution for recording your screen, interactions, webcam video and microphone audio all at once. If you’re doing quick user testing sessions, you get a single video stream of what you’re testing, with your user’s reactions picture-in-picture. Sure, you can jury-rig this with QuickTime, or pay for a more complex option, but this is just simple, and it works.
Primary uses: Observation capture, tagging
On top of all of this, don’t forget to take the findings of your validation testing back into the next iteration of the design. You can’t get it perfect for everyone, but you can continually evolve, both from the perspective of your understanding, and your solutions.
Did we miss any tools? Let us know your suggestions below.