Monday, October 13, 2008

Free Usability Assessment Worksheet!

I won’t claim a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but is it really just a coincidence that the stock market finally had a good day exactly when my new Guide to Demand Generation Systems is about to be released? Think about it.

That said, the new Guide Web site is in the final testing and should be launched tomorrow. It might even be working by the time you read this: try The Guide itself has been circulating in draft among the vendors for about two weeks. The extra time was helpful since it allowed a final round of corrections triggered by the yes/no/maybe comparison matrix.

I still feel this sort of matrix oversimplifies matters, but it does seem to focus vendors’ attention in a way that less structured descriptions do not. In fact, I’m wondering whether I should drop the structured descriptions altogether, and just show the matrix categories with little explanatory notes. Readers would lose some nuance, but if nobody pays attention to the descriptions anyway, it might be a good choice for future editions. It would certainly save me a fair amount of work. Thoughts on the topic are welcome (yes, I know few of you have actually seen the Guide yet. I’m still considering how to distribute samples without losing sales.)

Part of my preparation for the release has been to once more ponder the question of usability, which is central to the appeal of several Guide vendors. A little external research quickly drove home the point that usability is always based on context: it can only be measured for particular users for particular functions in particular situations. This was already reflected in my thinking, but focusing on it did clarify matters. It actually implies two important things:

1. each usability analysis has to start with a definition of the specific functions, users and conditions that apply to the purchasing organization. This, in turn, means

2. there’s no way to create a generic usability ranking.

Okay, I’ll admit #2 is a conclusion I’m very happy to reach. Still, I do think it’s legitimate. More important, it opens a clear path towards a usability assessment methodology. The steps are:

- define the functions you need, the types of users who perform each function, and the conditions the users will work under. “Types of users” vary by familiarity with the system, how often they use it, their administrative rights, and their general skill sets (e.g. marketers vs. analysts vs. IT specialists). The effort required for a given task varies greatly for different user types, and so do the system features that are most helpful. To put it in highway terms: casual users need directions and guardrails; experienced users like short cuts.

“Conditions” are variables like the time available for a task, the number of tasks to complete, the cost of making an error, and external demands on the user’s time. A system that’s optimized for one set of conditions might be quite inefficient under another set. For example, a system designed to avoid errors through careful review and approvals of new programs might be very cumbersome for users who don’t need that much control.

- assess the effort that the actual users will spend on the functions. The point is that having a specific type of user and set of conditions in mind makes it much easier to assess a system’s suitability. Ideally, you would estimate the actual hours per year for each user group for each task (recognizing that some tasks may be divided among different user types). But even if you don't have that much detail, you should still be able to come up with a score that reflects which systems are more easier to use in a particular situation.

- if you want to get really detailed, break apart the effort associated with each task into three components: training, set-up (e.g. a new email template or campaign structure), and execution (e.g. customizing an email for a particular campaign). This is the most likely way for labor to be divided: more skilled users or administrators will set things up, while casual users or marketers will handle day-to-day execution. This division also matches important differences among the systems themselves: some require more set-up but make incremental execution very easy, while others need less set-up for each project but allow less reuse. It may be hard to actually uncover these differences in a brief vendor demonstration, but this approach at least raises the right question and gives a framework for capturing the answers.

- after the data is gathered, summarize it in a traditional score card fashion. If the effort measures are based on hours per year, no weighting is required; if you used some other type of scoring system, weights may be needed. You can use the same function list for traditional functionality assessments, which boil down to the percentage of requirements (essential and nice-to-have) each system can meet. Functional scores almost always need to be weighted by importance. Once you have functionality and usability scores available, comparing different systems is easy.

In practice, as I’ve said so many times before, the summary scores are less important than the function-by-function assessments going into them. This is really where you see the differences between systems and decide which trade-offs make the most sense.

For those of you who are interested, I’ve put together a Usability Assessment Worksheet that supports this methodology. This is available for free on the new Guide Web site: just register (if registration is working yet) and you’ll be able to download it. I’ll be adding other resources over time as well—hopefully the site will evolve into a useful repository of tools.

No comments: