A History Of Usability

August 8, 2012

As our clients know from recent conversations about our product roadmap, our Product teams are constantly thinking about usability and user experience.  I recently came across an interesting article titled “The History Of Usability: From Simplicity To Complexity,” from Smashing Magazine, which is an online publication for professional Web designers and developers, with an emphasis on design. The article provides an interesting history of design and makes the argument that design has become more complex over time – but what I found most compelling is the structure it suggests for conducting design moving forward. 

The article begins with ancient history and moves to discussing the different schools of thought around design.  The article makes a clear distinction between two current methods for conducting usability work – analytical vs. empirical evaluation methods.  Analytical evaluation methods are based on examining the system and potential interactions with it, whereas the empirical evaluation technique is based on actual usage data.  The article then makes a distinction between usability and user experience, the latter representing an expansion of the usability discipline beyond design to include psychology and cognition.

Consistent with the article’s recommendations, PORTIA has always designed products and solutions using a careful balance of both analytical and empirical evaluation methodologies.  Not only do we study our systems carefully throughout our software development lifecycle process to make sure they are meeting benchmarks and standards, but we also engage in significant user testing with a variety of stakeholders to ensure that the system is exceeding expectations and meeting the real-life needs and workflows of our clients. For example, many of our clients have been deeply involved in the design of PORTIA v11, our latest software release, through development communities and user testing groups.

As we’ve discussed before, usability is a key component of our product evolution and continues to play a big role in our latest release of PORTIA v11.  In PORTIA v8, we introduced our corporate actions module with a new workflow concept, which we then used as a template for all new functionality released (ex: swaps manager, fund accounting, etc). In subsequent versions of PORTIA we introduced the PORTIA Workspace, which made the entire PORTIA system more intuitive and customizable for users.  Now PORTIA v11 is evolving the product a step further by providing role-based workflows and simpler outputs using new technology and graphical formats to make PORTIA even easier to use.

The final point that struck me from the Smashing Magazine article is that responsibility for usability has shifted from a single person in an organization who specialized in the discipline to teams of product design and development managers who are responsible for engraining usability into all aspects of a software development lifecycle.  At PORTIA, all of our product development staff is involved in the usability and user experience decision-making process because everyone is tasked with understanding client workflows and how they impact our products.  We believe this helps us strike the right balance between analytical vs. empirical research, and helps bring many different perspectives to bear and arrive at the best conclusions possible.

 If you are an existing PORTIA client and want to get more involved in usability testing or want to provide us with specific feedback on PORTIA’s user experience, please email me directly at JGouzoules@sscinc.com.  What challenges do you see with usability and user experience in the financial technology industry?  Do you think there is a best way to conduct usability research, and do you see this changing over time?

 –          John Gouzoules, Product Development Manager

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