What can usability research do for you?

Working on digital tools for social good, I often need to explain what “user research” or “usability” are, and how and when they are (or should be) deployed in software development. Here’s a list of some types of usability work, linking to examples from my portfolio.

Design research
Do this first. Technology developers need to get a concrete understanding of users’ needs early and often, and plan and build to meet those needs.
Examples:
Adapting Lean UX methods to free/open source software: Report from the GridSync design workshop
Icons for security and privacy

Market(ing) research/landscape surveys
Background research on competitors, technological developments, and user behavior is as important to widespread adoption of digital tools for social good as it is for the spread of commercial products.
Examples:
VPN users with security concerns: What they need
Secure voice communication: The lay of the land in open source

My mockup for the Psiphon VPN for Android.

User interface/experience design
Design research, usability research, and actual design of interfaces are all slightly different skill sets. Not every usability professional is equally strong in all of them! I tend to be stronger on the research side, but I have built a few interface prototypes and managed/ participated in graphic design activities.
Examples:
Prototype of an interface for the Psiphon VPN
Prototype of an interface for the Bitmask VPN

Heuristic review/expert review/cognitive walkthrough
Before you release software to the general public, it helps to have someone who understands interface design go over it. This can catch major pain points before users run into them and abandon a tool.
Examples:
Expert UX Review: Bitmask Linux Desktop Client
Expert Review: GridSync, a secure cloud app built on Tahoe-LAFS
Expert review: Briar, a P2P messaging app

Analytics/metrics
While often thought of as a job for data scientists, analysis of metrics (like downloads, uninstalls, and page access) can be a great way to identify where further UX research needs to be done.
Examples:
Using Metrics to Identify User Pain Points in Open-Source Security Tools

Usability testing
Generally performed when software has already been released. At that point, there is often a need to work out kinks in the software which may be frustrating users, causing them to take their business elsewhere.
Examples:
Usability Report: Psiphon VPN for Android
Usability Report: Pixelated Webmail Client
Usability Report: Proposed Mailpile Features
Usability Report: Ostel.co, Linphone & CSipSimple

User personas
These sketch-portraits of the kind of people who might use a given site or app can help a team understand who they are developing a software, system, or service for — and help them build empathy for them.

Examples:
User Personas for Privacy and Security

Mental model mapping
Less often used in industry, this cognitive method of getting users to literally draw out how they believe a system works can be very helpful in understanding why users are struggling to use a system correctly.

Examples:
A technical report on people’s mental models of email

Talks, articles, and workshops
For more information on usability research and my work, check out these talks and workshops I’ve given, and a couple of articles:
Better security by design: Why you should include designers when you sit down to talk about the security threats described in the OWASP Top 10 (originally published in ThoughtWorks Insights)
Meltdown, Spectre, and user stories from the new security “normal” (originally published in ThoughtWorks Insights)
Users are people too: How to make your tools not suck for humans (video, ShmooCon)
Empowering users to give high-quality feedback (blog post and slides, Internet Freedom Festival)
Has the address bar had its day? Discussion of trends in browser design (originally published in .net Magazine)
Web illiteracy: How much is your fault? An analysis of design concerns in search engines (ReadWriteWeb)

Researcher, educator, and speaker on human factors in tech. My policy work has been relied on by the EFF and US State Department. Author of keepcalmlogon.com