User testing at Intelligent Environments, part 1

As banking online becomes the new normal and traditional differentiators like interest rates lose their leverage, usability is the key…

User testing at Intelligent Environments, part 1

co. authored with Adrian Westlake

As banking online becomes the new normal and traditional differentiators like interest rates lose their leverage, usability is the key to gaining and keeping customers.

“The most common user action on a web site is to flee.”

– Edward Tufte

When it comes to commercial software, there’s only one thing that really matters – active, engaged, users.

In the early days of any new technology, simply having software that will run on the latest platform can be enough to gain a competitive advantage and to keep early adopters happy. But it’s a short-lived honeymoon and it passes quickly as users become more sophisticated and competition increases.

Often, what follows is game of one-upmanship as organisations realise that simply being there isn’t enough and they try to attract customers with innovative and expanding feature sets.

But here too there is a natural limit – most types of software have something like a coherent, logical feature set and it’s much easier to add ‘missing’ features in the early days than to innovate and extend that feature set with entirely new ones thereafter.

Feature development never stops and it never stops being an important driver of active use but it does tend to settle into a more sustainable pace after starting at a sprint.

This story has been repeated on personal computers, on the web and, most recently, on our smartphones and it always ends the same way – what underpins active use in the long term, after the early gold rush, is usability.

“Usability is critical for any application, but for mass-market software, usability spells success or failure more clearly than any other feature.”

– Dr. Jerrold Grochow, CTO, American Management Systems

Usability is the key to gaining and keeping digital banking customers

There is a clear, commercial imperative for banks to move their banking on-screen and online and, as traditional differentiators like interest rates lose their leverage, usability is playing an increasingly important hand.

This is evidenced by the rise of banks like Simple in the US who have stolen a march on bigger, more established banks by focussing on user experience.

Delivering great usability is difficult and getting it right means doing far more than simply adding a little design polish at the end of a long project.

Poor usability can be thought of as a software defect and like any software defect the cost of fixing it increases dramatically between the beginning and end of a project (by about two orders of magnitude according to IBM.)

Usability has to be integrated into the software development process from the beginning, and that’s where our focus is at Intelligent Environments.

Because there is such a premium on surfacing important information at the earliest opportunity we have been shifting away from formal usability testing to faster, earlier, ad-hoc ‘hallway’ methods.

In the past we have outsourced usability work to consultancies but whilst their work was good we realised that we didn’t need beautiful, exhaustive multi-page documents late in the day, we needed to know less, sooner – just enough to tell us to change direction and then test again.

We’ve also found that surfacing evidence early helps settle internal disagreements quickly, and it helps again later when we need to explain our design decisions to customers.

Putting real software in front of real users

It’s a usability truism that the more involved you are in a project the less able you are to see it from the perspective of your users so we’re always looking for new ways to put real things in front of real users.

We like to prototype our software and both paper and HTML prototypes give us an opportunity to try things out before they enter development.

We’re also big fans of tools like, which allows us to video real users using our products and survey them afterwards, and of which gives us a really quick way to A/B test different components like messages and buttons.

We’ve also found heat maps of user clicks are a really great way to understanding what users are doing, and a really impactful way of explaining it to others.

Arguably our biggest usability assets are new employees though. Anyone joining the company fits the bill as a real user who’s unfamiliar with our products and they can expect to be sat in front our latest software and quietly observed!

And it doesn’t matter how many times I watch them, I never cease to be amazed at how different their perspectives can be from mine or from each other.

Better usability doesn’t just mean moving things around the screen and arranging them in an optimal way, however (although that’s really important), it’s also thinking about how to improve users’ lives by creating something new.

Recently we’ve been testing a new budget calculator and it’s been a great demonstration of how innovative features can enhance the user experience.

Our user testing revealed that they just don’t expect banks to be as helpful as providing budgeting tools!

Knowing that users are really going to appreciate what we’re developing is motivating for our team and it demonstrates again the difference that user testing and usability can make to banks’ most important channel.

With that in mind I’ll leave you with some feedback from one of our anonymous external user testing participants:

 “if my bank had this I would use it, I would consider swapping to another bank if I knew that this was an option …”

– Anonymous user testing participant, Intelligent Environments –