From a private large law firm knowledge management gathering, here is a near real-time report on a relatively unusual KM topic, usability issues. 

A usability expert from one of the attending law firms presents. Her prior job titles include include Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, Information Architect, and User Experience Researcher.

She starts with an illustration from the “real world”, a car dome light (in a rental car) with no obvious way to turn it on. That’s bad! Likes the usability of DropSend web interface because it make very clear what it does and how to use it. In contrast, she shows a PeopleSoft interface, which she calls ‘horrifying.’ There is a science behind usability; for example, many studies look at where to place labels on a page, how to design forms, whether to use check boxes or radio buttons. All of this falls under the rubric of “interaction” usability.

Quantitative research is one approach to improve usability. Studies look at timed tasks, eye tracking, observing behavior from behind a 2-way mirror. Qualitative research, another approach, includes recording in-depth interviews (suggests recording interviews and transcribing because certain issues jump out in transcript in a way they don’t in interview). Some leading KM practitioners have, in prior meetings, talked about field anthropology; this sounds quite similar. Metrics tie together the quantitative and qualitative.

Who can do usability work? Qualifications include

  • Ability to withstand looking like an idiot”. Lesson: identify the nice people in an organization who will help you learn gently
  • Genuine fascination with human behavior
  • Can balance focus with flexibility. (AKA knowing when to take a stand)
  • Good at building and maintaining relationships
  • Customer service oriented
  • Eye for detail
  • Draw towards complex problem-solving

I ask how do you know when a site is sufficiently usable? There may be some users who ‘just don’t get it.’ The general rule is 80-20. You may never be able design to meet 100% of the need – 80% is likely good enough. In a law firm, one approach is to design the interface for the most senior people likely to use the system (assuming the more junior ones are more likely to be able to learn quickly).

So what can a typical KM professional do to improve / work on usability?

  • Don’t fear white space on a page.
  • Not enough a white space is a huge problme – it leads to clutter.
  • Don’t assume that ‘easy to build’ means ‘easy to use’. It takes a lot of work to make something easy.
  • You are no your audience.
  • Research first, then build prototypes. Consider agile design.
  • Test with users.
  • Use wireframes to test
  • using Net Promotor score to assess web site usability.
  • “Card sorting”. Put names of pages on index cards, ask users to group and order. If you do this with multiple people, you will see patterns. There are online tools to help with this.
  • Use personas to make sure you have the right design target. Have a picture and top level demographics of a typical user. This helps communicate to developers who the end user is. For example, have personas for senior lawyer, junior lawyer, secretary.