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How To Geek Out On Usability With Justin Mifsud

Usability GeekFrom time to time I come across really interesting folks in social media and immediately want to interview them.  Justin Mifsud followed me on Twitter, I looked at his profile on user experience and I thought it would be great to chat with him back his interests in user experience, usability and mobile applications. Justin is the author of the Usability Geek Blog, here's our interview:

John: Where are you from, what was your education and what inspired your interest in usability

Justin: Well, I am from Malta - an small island of just 419,000 people in the middle of the Mediterranean sea known for its rich history and lovely weather. I am originally a marketing graduate but after becoming a self taught freelance web designer and developer, i became fascinated by what the web can do for a business. Being a freelancer I was mostly involved in systems analysis and trying to design websites that sought to achieve the objectives that they were created for. This inevitably led me towards a constant quest into trying to understand users. Eventually I read a degree in Computing and Information systems and focused on user interface from a more academic perspective.  For my dissertation i proposed a framework which seeks to mainstream website usability within web development companies by automating certain aspects of the usability evaluation process. Soon I will be furthering my studies through a masters degree in Human Computer Interaction. However, looking back, I think that what triggered my interest in usability has always been the role I held within companies - that of being the middle man between clients who wanted a website and understanding their own clients.

John: What does usability on a website mean to you?

Justin: Usability is all about the user. A usable website is one that is designed and developed in such a way that will enable the user it is designed for to achieve his/her objective. The objectives and the way they are achieved will obviously vary depending on the website itself. For example the objective of an e-commerce website is to sell its products. So a usable e-commerce website would have all the good usability properties that are applicable to all websites such as good navigation, readable content etc. In addition to this, it will also need to have specific positive usability traits that are essential for e-commerce websites such as good product display, product information, price and an easy checkout system.

John: You started in the last year or so. Why did you start the site? How do you generate content for the site?

Justin: Yes, UsabilityGeek is slightly more than a year old now. As I have stated in various articles in the site, I had started it because when I was researching for my thesis in automated usability evaluation I came across several excellent research papers with so much to learn from that were available only for academics. At the same time, I felt that simply making this wealth of knowledge available to web designers and developers as it is would still not contribute solving the problem that so many websites with poor usability are still being developed. What was needed was a blog that digested this knowledge and presented it in an easy to understand, non-academic yet well researched format. Rather than droning on with theoretical stuff, the blog had to present recommendations that were easy to understand and apply. And that is how UsabilityGeek was born. I have always kept a hands on approach in the site - from designing it, coding it to marketing and generating it's content. Keeping it running whilst working and studying is not an easy feat when you are doing it solo. At the moment I publish one article per week, usually every Monday afternoon. I write most of the articles myself, although, more recently I have started accepting guest posts. Whilst the latter have eased a bit my writing commitments, guest posts still require quite a lot of editing.  Still, they are an excellent means to add different point of views and variety to the blog.

John: What design changes have you made over the last year and why?

Justin: Although 1 year is not a long period, I felt the need to introduce several small changes in the user interface of UsabilityGeek. Most of these changes revolved around the need to increase user engagement with the site - in other words to keep users longer in terms of time and the number of articles that they read. This is why I introduced the related articles and the slider. Occasionally I also revise published articles and add links to other articles that I have since written. In this way, users can then click on these links in order to read an entire article about a point that was raised in another article. Not only do these mechanisms increase engagement but, more importantly, they provide a richer user experience for the user. Remember that the objective of UsabilityGeek is to provide information about usability. So making it easier for the user to access such information ultimately makes the blog more usable. Other changes include the presence of the blog on more social media channels especially Twitter and Facebook. The main reason is again, to make the content more available.

John: What's posts on the blog this year, would you consider the most interesting?

Justin: Definitely those that provide a list of practical guidelines about a specific aspect of a website. In fact, the most popular posts were ... The reason is that these type of guidelines are easy to reference as a checklist when in doubt. The only exception was the post that attracted the most visitors so far. Ironically it is also the one that took me the least time to write - a collection of links to usability, user experience and user interface guidelines from software companies.

John: How are mobile devices changing ideas about usability?

Justin: Mobile devices have obviously changed our concept of the device that people use to view a website. Up until a few years ago, we did not bother that much with offering a mobile version of a website since the majority of users still accessed websites via desktop devices or laptops. However, we are now experiencing an increased demand to optimize websites for mobile use. Sometimes this may simply involve using widths that appear well on monitors and mobile devices - something which I would not advice since it is very likely that the ever-increasing size of monitors is not utilized efficiently. Better implementations would redirect to a specially developed site that is optimized for mobile use. Moreover, several web based applications are now being offered as mobile apps. Based on the ever-increasing usage of mobile phones and devices such as the iPad, the demand for usability on mobile devices will continue to increase.

John: What do you think about all the changes with the search engine algos? what does this mean for design and usability?

Justin: My view on usability and SEO is that they must live in harmony. Very often I come across blog posts that like to highlight the differences between these two areas as a basis for an argument that they are completely contradictory. I do acknowledge that certain usability and SEO practices are opposites although in the majority of areas such as images, links, title tags, content and headings, usability and SEO optimization practices share several common guidelines. However, the way I see it is that good SEO will help you in getting users to your website but good usability is what keeps them there.

The latest Google algorithm changes continue to enforce the view that search engines try to emulate humans as much as possible. Long are gone the days where keyword stuffing would get you top rankings. Instead we are now seeing more human-like ranking factors such as the ratio of content to other on-screen elements. Considering quality  and authority aspects of websites when ranking websites in the SERP means that users are given websites that are likely to help them achieve their goals. This all ties in nicely with usability.