Ask These Five Usability Questions Before You Choose Your Next Software Tool

Good apps provide a good flow—both in their own user interface and when they interact with other tools. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you look for tools that lend themselves to your users' tech muscle memory.

Back in March, I wrote about my concern that Google Inbox was about to go away, after I’d used it on a regular basis for about five years.

In April, Google finally closed down its power-user email client, and I felt sad. But I also saw an opportunity, because it forced me to think hard about my routines and whether I needed to change anything.  I did a little experimenting with other tools and even Inbox-like Chrome extensions, but I ultimately found that Gmail was still the one for me. Its integrations with existing plug-ins and other services meant more than any new doodad.

That’s because the muscle memory baked into Gmail is just too good, and many of the things I had taken for granted with Inbox had worked their way into Gmail. It works similarly enough that it does the job for me.

Tools that play to your team’s technology muscle memory help minimize learning curves and hiccups that get in the way of work. It’s smart to look for this element when making decisions about what software your team should use. To that end, here are a few questions to ask when analyzing a potential software tool:

Is it useful for both first-timers and power users? In the early 1980s, it was common for computers to come with command line interfaces that were cumbersome for new users but provided lots of options for experienced ones. Graphical user interfaces like Windows solved some of these problems but only reached their true potential as they got more sophisticated. Now, most operating systems hit this nice middle ground of ease of use and depth. That’s something associations should be looking for in their own tools. A too-simplistic tool won’t reach its full potential; an overly complex tool might come with a lot of hidden costs. Find the middle ground.

Does it offer multiple ways to tackle the same task? One key part of building muscle memory is “flow”—that is, the ability to do a task without getting stopped or confused in the process. If you’re a first-time user, you just want a path to get to the solution you need; if you’re more seasoned, you want things like keyboard commands and macros. A good example of this is Photoshop: If you just want to fix the levels on an image, you can use a menu selection, but if mousing up to the menu gets in the way of your flow, you can use a keyboard command or even a custom dialog box.

Do you have to keep switching input devices to use it? Tell me if this one sounds familiar: You have to fill in a form, but the form is designed so that you have to type your text, then go back to your mouse, then go back to your keyboard to type more text. If a tools forces you into this kind of back and forth, you’re not being as productive as you could be, and you’re way more likely to get frustrated.

Does it integrate nicely with your existing tools? It’s 2019—our apps don’t live isolated from one another anymore and work better when they talk to each other. Take Microsoft Teams, for example. Microsoft Office is widely used by organizations, and Teams is perfect for collaborating within that structure. But if you’re using outside tools or rely on custom solutions, you may need something like Slack for cross-tool collaboration. Integration with different tools, as well as application programming interfaces (APIs), are nice to have, especially when you start talking about more complex tools like association management systems. Integration is key, for both users and the enterprise.

How does the tool handle major redesigns? Last week, Twitter put out its first major desktop website redesign in about five years. The response was muted, which is a sign that it was a success. A big reason for that, I think, is that the platform kept many of the original bones intact, while offering nice-to-haves that power users like without sacrificing the basic flow. It kept the three-column structure of the prior design, for example, but it moved some of the more data-oriented secondary information (trending topics) in the right column. And it added multiple account switching, which once required a third-party extension. The result is different, but not foreign. That’s what users often want out of a redesign—and it’s what you should look for, too.

When it comes to software tools, we have diverse needs, both personally and organizationally. But there is lots of common ground. You want surface-level simplicity and seemingly limitless depth, and, eventually, you want to know the tool like the back of your hand.

If you get those things together, you might even be able to get some work done.

(Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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