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I want to know if this argument is a common one that is made - as it's one I was intending to conclude a report with.

I have been asked to advise on how to improve the usability of a company portal.

Part of my conclusion - and the matter on which I would like some critique is as follows:

When considering usability of a portal, design alone is only one factor of the experience. It is more appropriate to consider how to positively influence 'all-encompassing' UX. On an ecommerce website what a user needs for task completion can be mostly accommodated within the design, i.e. it does not demand the interaction of others to be 'usable'. For a company portal to become 'usable' requires an element of social interaction online such as previous postings of articles by other users, and how many users are presently online, should a user need to ask a question that requires an answer quickly. Also important is how they are introduced to the portal, which again is outside of the design.

My question is - is this a valid argument to run with? - Although I have been asked to advise on usability (I believe motivated by a desire to promote the chances of user acceptance) am I right to suggest that on a website proposed to support a community, the UX (involving not just influencing by design) is important too?

Nb. for usability I have been suggesting throughout that this is a product of ease of use and usefulness, but could now conclude that 'usefulness' in particular is also influenced by the past, present, and future use of others (not necessarily true for amazon.com)

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Difficult to see what is being asked here. You're asking if it's a valid argument, but I don't read anything that sounds like an argument. To me it sounds like you are rambling. –  Mathew Foscarini Aug 27 '13 at 9:52
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5 Answers

It's a very wide statement which can be interpreted to almost anything. But I haven't had the chance to read the previous sections in your report, so this will only be based on my assumptions reading your conclusion.

For starters usability is the older narrower term, which today is almost entirely exchanged by User Experience. User Experience is Visual Design, Interaction Design, Information Design and Information Architecture. All of these different overlapping technologies and arts needs to be mentioned to make this a valid report. Further I would break the structure of the portal into four major blocks:

  • Navigation and Wayfinding elements. Do the portal have global, local and related navigation elements? Do the portal make use of bread crumbs, faceted navigation and/or periferrial navigation?

  • Search is there, but is it managed? Do the portal facilitate filters, counters, search result preview, best bets, did you mean?, auto suggestion and/or thesaurus?

  • The Classification and Hierarchy is done in a way that reflects the ontology of the organisation? If not, content will end up in places not extected by the organisations users.

  • There is Labels and Tagging in place, both in a controlled and governed environment as well as the possibility for portal users to add there own tags on content in a folksonomy like implementation?

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  • Access to content is done inside the browser or do you need other applications, such as office?

If you break your reasoning to that fine grained level it's much easier to tell whether or not this is good or bad, fast or slow, easy or hard.

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The UX is always important. I mean most websites can be improved with usability and shared knowledge of users. I don't quite get your point that e-commerce don't need interaction of others when it is crucial to see, for example, user reviews of the product or user reviews of the seller.

I also think you should be more specific with terminology, like when you use the term 'design' I understand you mean Visual Design, however when you say: 'what a user needs for task completion can be mostly accommodated within the design' which is not accurate as the completion of a purchase involves navigation decisions, information design and usability.

I think you should just make the case for creating a community, how that will save money by having less calls to call centres or make users more happy and build trust.

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One way to look at this is something is better than nothing. It sounds like you've been asked to fix surface issues and improve the interaction design of the portal. This is not the same as improving the overall User Experience. In my experience improving a portal is, indeed, often not about the design, nor is it about adding features. Asking what the users do and what information they use to do those tasks is vital. Never ask a user what they need or what features they want directly as you'll get a wish list rather than a set of real requirements, instead it's best to talk to them about their job and slowly move them into using the system to show how the existing system doesn't work for them. This is contextual inquiry essentially and is much better at finding out what is needed in a new intranet than usability testing - plus if you interview 40 people in this way you'll keep on learning new things.

So improving the usability of a portal (by which I presume you mean Intranet or Extranet) can be done on a low level through expert reviews and fixing things broken on a few page or it can be done in a holistic way which goes through a full UX process including user research, concepting, prototyping etc. The more, the better. Time and money are the two things you fight to get the best results.

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First of all, it depends on what "usability" means for the person asking. Maybe usability for them means usefulness and usability for instance. To be sure, you should ask them on how they define usability, and also share your view on how you define usability (and UX in general).

Second, I'd say only improving usability implies (as you also have mentioned) that the users needs are all covered (i.e. that the site's features all are very useful)... And you can't be sure about this without asking the users. Making a very user-friendly won't matter if noone thinks its content is useful.

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I would frame my analysis of the site's usability with user needs, like the following.

User need: Users need to determine if the service is credible.

Analysis: Other than coming to the site via a credible source, users have no way to determine if the site is credible.

Design Recommendation(s):

  1. Consider including postings from existing users in order to create a sense of community.
  2. Consider including press clippings.
  3. ... etc. (you could make several recommendations and even include mockups)

Go through all the user needs and explore them in a very structured way:

  1. user need
  2. analysis
  3. recommendations.

Optionally you can add mockups and explore some of the recommendations in more depth but let your reader come back to that later if they want.

I hope that helps. It's just how I would tackle the task, so take it with a grain of salt.

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