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Take a Step Back – Simple Tips to Quickly Check a Design for Usability

April 12, 2013

When it comes to creating user interfaces, designers can get too close to the project (literally) and lose sight of basic usability. Sometimes you have to take a step back and obscure your view just enough to see potential usability problems that you might not notice otherwise. Here are some simple things you can do for a quick usability check. They’re so easy, you’ll find yourself doing them all the time.

1. Shrink it: Make your design so small that you can’t read it. The easiest thing is to stand several feet from your display. Print the design, hang it on a wall, and stand across the room. Zoom out to 25%. View it on your phone without zooming in. All these techniques help you step back to see what stands out and what doesn’t.

2. Distort it: You can do this just by blurring your vision, but if you don’t like flexing your eye muscles: apply a gaussian blur or use a pixelate filter, like a Color Halftone, Pointilize, or Mosaic. Making the design blocky with pixelation forces you to see your design differently.

3. Change the language: Have you ever navigated a website in an unfamiliar language? Good UX can help you get around without reading a single word. Change the font to something non-native, copy and paste from a Chinese website, or use Ipsum. (My favorite generator is Bacon Ipsum). Being unable to read it allows you to focus more on the overall user experience without being distracted by words.

Subtle Isn’t Obvious
When you start checking designs using these techniques, the first thing to go is usually subtlety. It might be considered the hallmark of sophisticated design, but it’s often lost on the average user.

UX: this navigation is too subtle

This navigation’s active element is much less obvious when obscured. It will need some better visual cues.

While I use these frequently to check designs myself, they are also great for user testing. Try one of these techniques with a user and see if you get better feedback. It can remove some of the noise that you often receive about content-related confusion and help maximize useful feedback.

These ideas force you to see a design differently and can help you quickly spot where you might need to beef up the user interface. Sometimes the best way to really focus on a design is to blur it.