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16 February 2011

The Essential Guide to Usability in Web Design: Part 3

For newcomers to the blog back in Part 1 I introduced the series and defined usability. In Part 2, I gave you a taster of how a usability improvement happens here at Senior and some examples of recent tweaks within our content management system, River CMS.

In this concluding post, I’ll be giving my two pence on what makes a good usability tweak and defining and measuring success within usability.

What to change?

As mentioned in Part 1, issues can arise and be identified by user feedback, observation (in testing or a training environment perhaps) and also via statistics from Analytics or a similar package.

An issue arises when identifying the process a user goes through to complete an action but users are struggling to complete that process or are perhaps completing the process but not in an efficient or logical manner.

Identifying needed changes

Identifying all the “roadblocks” within a system can lead to a vast, daunting array of changes that you with to complete to help your users. Consequently, it is important to prioritise.

I’m sure everyone has their favourite way to prioritise tasks but I tend to go for the utilitarian approach of doing the most good for the greatest number of users within the system in question. This could also be adding the most value to the greatest number of users.

The upshot of this approach is that you can focus on the bigger picture and not get bogged down thinking about something like the size of a button. Another outcome is that your product (CMS or whatever) will become better at a faster pace with each wave of updates than if prioritisation didn’t occur.

Prioritisation of changes

That said, when prioritising, some organisation beyond “what does most good“ is wise. Put yourself in the mind of the user (generally a good idea throughout this whole process).

If all areas of the system keep updating willy nilly and little changes happen here and there, it can become confusing, so a modularisation approach can be useful when planning your next update. An example would be our media manager in River CMS – we are currently focusing on updating this module instead of updating all modules a little bit at a time.

By all means do the odd subtle update if necessary, but I try to focus on certain areas of the system at a time. It’s much easier for users to see where changes have happened, and the Changelog is easier to write!

The common aims of a usability tweak

There are many different ways to improve a system, but here are the tweaks that I think count most for the user:

Make it faster

Google famously focus on speed, and for good reason. A faster system means a less frustrated user.

But speed may not just mean load time. The time it takes for a user to get through a process successfully can often be cut down.

Something like changing the default settings of how a news story is published to match what most people need (so they don’t have to play with settings and just publish a post) can cut the time that it takes for a user to publish a story.

Simplify, but don’t hold back power users

Often linked to speed, simplifying a process can make for a better user experience.

Remove or re-arrange anything that can confuse users and make sure the process is easy to follow. Try not to remove features that aid power-users – we want the changes to be progressive for all.


It’s amazing how much a new modern skin on an interface can make the product seem nicer to use. Ignoring new features, think about how much nicer a system like Gmail seems nowadays compared to three years ago.

A tweak as simple as spacing things out for easier reading or alternating the colour of rows in a long table can really improve the system.


A common one. Maybe (and often) the reason that a process is hard to grasp for a user is that it may not actually make sense. It may have made sense internally at some point but not for users.

Teams building the system learn how it works as they build it but it may not be the logical way for it to work. The River CMS system recently made the process of making a page from scratch more coherent.

More features

Adding additional value to your system is also beneficial.

However, a pitfall would be adding too many features without them being thought through. It’s far better to have a few more new features that have gone through user testing.

Measuring success

Measure success/failure against the points above. Does the latest update get over the initial roadblocks? Does it make it more logical? I tend to think about it in terms of process throughput:

Do more people use the feature? You could use your favoured statistical package to measure this, assuming it’s a process through your system.

Maybe it is unlikely that your change would mean more people would use it (especially if it is a closed system) so you could check whether the process has more throughput – do more people complete it or do more people get past the point of issue before the update? An example might be where the same number of people are getting to the point where a news story has a title and content, but now more people are posting them thanks to a better positioned publish button. Success.

Don’t forget user feedback. All changes may cause feedback, both positive and negative. Listen to it and iterate your tweaks using this feedback.


We’ve covered usability in general, examples from our CMS, and what makes a good usability tweak.

I’ve opened up my usability methods and thinking but would love to hear your thoughts and methods. Feel free to add a comment below.