Mobile Usability Meets Cognitive Psychology at Usability Week 2012

Not even Hurricane Sandy could stop the Nielsen Norman Group. While New York battened down the hatches, I was lucky enough to take part in Usability Week 2012: a series of common sense workshops on how to make interfaces imminently more usable.

It’s not a stretch to say that Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman invented digital usability as we know it. The pair launched their consultancy in 1998, in response to a shared dissatisfaction with the state of design. Over the years, Nielsen Norman Group has gained a reputation for pragmatic insights on how to make interfaces easier and more transparent for users. As digital products and the web evolve, their usability fundamentals remain central to how we build and perceive interfaces.

Mobile Websites and Apps: Essential Usability Principles

Admittedly the event took on an eerie, quiet Sunday afternoon as the storm approached. A handful of people gathered to hear Raluca Budiu discuss mobile usability.

Many of us have engrained habits from building and optimizing desktop interfaces. We are now dealing with new ergonomics, new standards, new capabilities that require radically different approaches to usability. As the workshop progressed, we rolled up our sleeves and discussed the intricacies of designing input fields, forms, content and navigation for mobile users.

Budiu outlined some key best practices for mobile usability:

  • Opt for a mobile site, web app or application based on how people use your site (i.e. are they carrying out tasks, or gathering information?)
  • Don’t make your users type if there is an alternative; whenever possible, enable users to enter information using their camera or voice
  • Mobile users are busy and distracted; do not make visitors memorize information from one page to another
  • Do not ask users to log in or register unless absolutely necessary (necessary = they are disclosing personal or financial information)

Human Mind and Usability: How Your Customers Think

Once Sandy had torn through the city and left a mess in her wake, I was back at Usability Week 2012 for a session on how our brains perceive and navigate the Internet. Usability specialist Marieke McCloskey outlined basic psychology concepts, then applied these concepts to user behaviour online. After defining some key principles of psychology, McCloskey demonstrated these principles in action online, applying theory to well-known online behaviours such as multitasking, banner blindness and scanning. She then took us through different ways that we can configure interfaces to accommodate the ways users make decisions and remember information online.

Based on how we think, remember and perceive, McCloskey offered up the following best practices:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel; be consistent with design standards and with the placement of elements on your site
  • Name and label things for what they are; make sure you accurately describe what users will find on the other side of a link or menu item
  • Streamline your content by making information clear and concise; minimize reading and memory load
  • When designing an interface, verify with users that your mental model is consistent with theirs

If attending the conference during the the storm underscored one thing for me, it’s that usability is at the heart of everything we make and everything we do in an urban environment — be it designing a mobile interface, or figuring out how to move hundreds of thousands of people from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We live in a manufactured environment; the more we can adapt our technology to the way human beings think and live, the better we can collaborate with one another and the changing world around us.

Kirsten Weisenburger, Digital Strategic Planner

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