Improving Snikket's usability in collaboration with Simply Secure

Posted by Matthew Wild on August 23 2021

One of the primary goals of the Snikket project is improving the usability of open communication software. We see usability as one of the major barriers to broader adoption of modern communication systems based on open standards and free, libre, open-source software. By removing this barrier, we open the door of secure and decentralized communication freedom to many vulnerable groups for which it was previously inaccessible or impractical.

Simply Secure is a non-profit organization working in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. They specialize in combining human-centered design with the complex technical requirements of privacy-first secure systems. Our first introduction to Simply Secure was while contributing to Decentralization Off The Shelf (DOTS), a unique and valuable project to document and share successful design patterns across the decentralized software ecosystem.

Now, thanks to funding from the OTF’s Usability Lab, we’re pleased to announce that Simply Secure will be working with us over the coming months to identify issues and refine the UX across the project, with a special focus on our iOS app.

We’ve made a lot of progress on the Snikket iOS app recently, largely based on valuable feedback from our beta testers, and we are getting excitingly close to a general release. However there is still some work to be done.

The expert folk at Simply Secure will be performing a usability audit of the current app, as well as conducting usability testing, which is the study of how people use the app, and what struggles they face while completing specific tasks.

Using information from these analyses the Simply Secure team will assist with producing wireframes (sketches of what the app’s interface should look like) and actionable advice to improve the UX of the iOS app and Snikket as a whole. You will find information on how to participate later in this post.

What is UX anyway?

The modern UX design movement is a recognition that technology should be accessible and easy to use for everyone. Good design can assist and empower people, poor design can hinder and even harm people. The need for design goes far beyond making a user interface look beautiful. Software that is not visually appealing may affect someone’s enjoyment of an application, but an aesthetically-pleasing interface is not magically user-friendly.

Therefore designing for a good user experience is about more than just making the interface look good, it’s about considering how the software fits into a person’s life, what they need from the software (and what they don’t need) and how they expect it to behave.

These are tricky things to get right. Every user is different, and a broad range of input must be taken into consideration as part of a good design process.

UX methodologies

There are various ways to gather information useful for making informed decisions about UX improvements. A common easy and cheap approach is to add metrics and analytics to an app. This can tell you things like how often people tap a particular button, or view a particular screen. Developers and designers can use this information to learn which features are popular, which should be removed, or made more visible.

This approach has drawbacks. Firstly it only tells you what users are doing, it doesn’t tell you why they are doing it, or what they are thinking and feeling - for example if they are frustrated while looking for a particular feature or setting. Metrics can tell you that making a button more prominent increased the click rate, but it won’t tell you if half the users who clicked on the button were expecting it to do something else! This isn’t really going to give you enough information to improve usability.

Another significant drawback with a focus on metrics is the amount of data the app must share with the developers. People generally don’t expect apps on their device to be quietly informing developers about the time they spend in the app, what they look at and what buttons they press. Such data collection may be made “opt-in”, and there are modern projects such as Prio, working to bring privacy and anonymity to such data collection through cryptographic techniques.

A wildly different but much more valuable approach is to directly study people while they use the app - a technique known as “usability testing”. Unlike silent data collection, usability testing directly pairs individual users or groups with an expert while they are asked to perform specific tasks within the app. Although this requires significantly more time and effort it produces more detailed and specific insights into the usability of an interface.

Advantages of this kind of study include the ability to listen and learn more deeply the needs of specific types of users, particularly minorities whose problems could easily be drowned out by larger groups of users in a simple statistics-driven data collection approach. It also allows you to capture peoples' thought processes, by asking them to explain each step as they complete tasks within the app.

Participation and looking forward

We can’t wait to begin our first usability testing facilitated by the experienced team at Simply Secure, and incorporate their findings into Snikket’s development.

If you’re interested in taking part, or know someone who would be a good fit for this project, we’d love to talk to you for 30 minutes to better understand how to improve Snikket. There will be no invasions of privacy as a result of this research. All identifying information will be removed. We will take all necessary and appropriate precautions to limit any risk of your participation. Anything that we make public about our research will not include any information that will make it possible to identify you. Research records will be kept in a secure location, and only Simply Secure and Snikket personnel will have access to them.

Appointment slots are available from 24th August to 3rd September.

Update: The usability testing phase of this project has now ended. Many thanks to everyone who participated, and helped spread the word!

Further reading