Most software products need improvement. In fact, as product owners, we are constantly stuck between building the features we need and improving the fundamentals through which those features are delivered. Often, there are three core dimensions on which a product can be assessed and improved without pausing the entire program.
The Design + Usability + Architecture Assessment
The Design, Usability and Architecture (DUA) Assessment is something many different design agencies utilize to gain understanding of software for the first time. It's nothing new, but sometimes reintroducing the old makes it new again, especially if you give it a small tweak. As a company focused on implementing excellent design, we think the architectural assessment is key to understanding the current state of affairs with your software product. What good is knowing what design and usability improvements will help your product if the technical structure of your app prevents you from implementing the recommendations?
The Design part of the assessment is all about visual consistency and "look and feel." It is the combination of branding, color, layout and patterns to make sure there is a cohesive language for the product. A quality product has a way of working that feels the same, regardless of what the user is doing. "Design" in this sense is a pretty broad category (and one could argue that some of these things are more about usability and vice versa), but it includes evaluating the following:
- Visual design compared with current graphic design trends
- Iconography and typography style and use
- Application of and adherence to design patterns
- Information architecture (navigation) review
- Language and tone of labels and copy
- Brand/color consistency
The Usability portion takes the design evaluation a bit deeper, focusing on how well the system matches with how humans interact with machines. It more heavily leans toward the human factors—the psychology and ergonomics of how people interact with systems—than how it looks. It's not so much that the toggle is green or pink, rather it's evaluating if a toggle is the right metaphor to provide the user with an understanding of how the system works. Does it give an indication of what happens when the toggle is flipped.
In addition, there are legal ramifications to how systems are designed. US federal law, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), outlines how systems, including digital technology, must work to be inclusive of those without standard input and output capabilities. This is an often overlooked part of software, particularly in startups, that could be a huge legal liability.
Along those two main ares, here are a few focal points of the usability assessment:
- WCAG 2.0 AA compliance check including font sizes, contrast for ADA legal compliance
- Screen reader compatibility
- Best practices with states and interactions
- Performance of features to comply with user expectations
- Affordance of interactive elements
- Form validation and error messaging
Today's technology landscape is a smattering of different libraries and frameworks all competing for a place in your tech stack. Sometimes the decision to include one or another comes from the technology team, sometimes the key stakeholders. Most often, the legacy system is rife with antiquated approaches to front-end development. The technology, however outmoded, does function and provides solutions to one or more problems for the users. How can the system be improved while still delivering on the current capabilities? It's like performing open-heart surgery on a patient while they are running a marathon. It takes planning and process, not just people and time.
Some of the elements evaluated during the technical assessment include:
- Modern software design tools/practices
- Modern web application frameworks/tools
- Migration strategy from legacy code
- Cloud migration strategies
- Workflow optimizations for remote development
Put all of these components together—Design, Usability and Architecture—and you get a rather concise look at glaring issues and new opportunities for your product. Most products are very complex and the assessment is just the start. With just 3-4 weeks of evaluation, it's a small investment to gain insight into the future. Out of it comes real recommendations and tangible action items on which to execute. Doing nothing really isn't an option as every startup, nay every competitor, is trying to eat your lunch. I mean, it looks tasty. You probably brought it in a Scooby Doo lunchbox from 1982. (Very cool, btw).