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Personal Usability: How Can We Make Ourselves More Usable to Others?

I introduced the concept of personal usability to World Usability Day attendees in New York on November 3, 2005. The audience had come to hear about the importance of usability as it relates to software, websites, and products. In my talk, I asked people if they were usable.

You see, as a marketing mentor, I spend my days talking with small business owners and independent contractors about their marketing and self-promotion. And what I notice, time and again, is that what strengthens their business relationships are small efforts that make other people’s lives just a little bit easier. That’s what I mean by personal usability.

Look at the way we live. We are bombarded from all sides every day by advertising messages, email messages, and more. We split our attention and multitask in an effort to get more done. We’re in a hurry and we don’t have time to think. We forget what people say, if we hear them at all. And once something is out of sight, it’s out of mind.

So how do we develop and sustain humane relationships in this increasingly com-plex and fragmented environment? I think the answer is by being more usable. Here are four simple ideas to play with:

  1. Do you respond? A usable website tells me that it has received and is processing my information. What about you? When someone gives you information, do you take a moment to respond? Or are you silent because you just don’t have time? Could you be more usable by sending a simple message that says, “Got it, thanks.” when someone sends you a file? A message like that always puts my mind at ease.
  2. Do you remember personal information? A usable website uses cookies and other technology to remember my name when I return to it. What about you? Do you remember other people’s names? Or do you say, “I just don’t remember names,” as if it’s genetic. Well, you can remember names and it will mean a lot to others, making you more usable. Here’s how:
  3. When you first meet someone, notice how much is vying for your attention—what the per-son looks like, what’s being said, the activity around you. It’s not that you don’t remember the name, you just don’t hear it. To remember it, you must consciously stop your mind, take a moment, and direct your full attention to it. Then, use the name in your response, or if you’ve already forgotten, ask for it again. Anyone would be pleased that you cared enough to focus on his or her name.
  4. Do you customize your conversation for each person you speak with? A usable software application uses language its users he time to think about what the person you’re speaking to will understand? For example, when someone outside the industry asks what you do, do you say something like, “I’m a usability engineer”? That’s not a particularly usable way of talking about usability. Instead, take a moment to think of a response based on what you know about your listener. Or, to be safe, respond with the lowest common denomi-nator: “I make websites easier to use.” Your audience will have a clearer picture of what you do; they may even remember.
  5. Do you have links to others? When a usable website provides a rich resource section or links page, it quickly becomes a “favorite.” What about you? Are you a favorite? Are you a font of information and resources that others will want to “bookmark” and come back to when they need something? Do you have “links”—that is, a personal network to connect people with others who can help them? Do you take the time to make a few calls to put someone in touch with someone who can help resolve a prob-lem, even if there’s nothing in it for you?

How to Write Usable Email

  1. Don’t send long email messages to people who aren’t expecting them. Instead, send short messages that ask for permission to open a dialogue.
  2. Send one message per message. Take time to think about what the recipient’s inbox, desk, etc., looks like, then craft an email message that will be easy for the recipient to read and respond to. And don’t address too many issues or questions in each message if you want them all answered.
  3. Put pertinent information and links at the right place and time—when and where it can be found most easily. For example, if you write, “Call me,” then put your phone number next to those words so the recipient doesn’t have to search for it.
  4. Know when to pick up the phone. Be aware of when email mode isn’t the most useful or usable medium.

As a usability professional, you already have the framework to be a usable person. All it takes is a little time and attention directed toward your users. Once you start, you’ll find the paybacks for being usable are considerable, as are the paybacks from all usable systems.