Why you should do usability testing

January 28 2010

I recently completed my first usability test and while it wasn’t very rigorous, it definitely opened up my eyes to how much feedback can be gained in such a short period of time. This became even more evident when showing results to the clients (designer team) who were over-confident in their ability to produce easy to use products.

I feel the process of usability testing can be summed up in these four five steps:

  1. Watch someone use your product
  2. Take note of any issues they have
  3. Reward/de-brief the participant for their time
  4. Fix the usability problems encountered
  5. Go to step 1

While usability testing has been defined and re-defined numerous times, the basic principle is simple: you watch people use your product. Coming from a development background I found this hard to swallow as I was of the opinion that people should use (and test) the product when it’s finished. I was regularly doing app-based unit testing to make sure that the core logic was always working as expected, but I didn’t think that giving an incomplete experience would at all benefit the final outcome.

Testing on a budget

Having recently read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, I opted for a DIY approach to testing. The project was around mid-way through design and implementation and due to the overall complexity involved in the product I felt that a usability test would be wise before moving forwards. Being a member of the development team I found it easy enough to take notes and explain them to the relevant team members for improvement.

The test format was fairly simple. Three individuals were gathered who had no previous history or knowledge of the product. They were each (separately) sat down in a room with myself infront of a computer. They would use the product (an application) and would be asked to complete a series of tasks and give a play-by-play commentary on what they’re doing and thinking. For the purposes of this test, a set of ten common tasks were set as the base-line to make testing fair amongst the different participants. In case you were wondering, Silverback was used as the recorder.

Why was it useful?

After voicing my concerns about possible difficulties in using the UI, my opinions were shot down as I wasn’t the target audience. Having completed the usability test one thing was made blindingly clear to the design team: their core concepts weren’t easy to understand. Despite some features being unexpectedly beneficial to the test participants the core of the design had basic problems, which luckily could be dealt with this early on.

Initial reaction was frustration and anger, given the shear amount of time that was spent on this app, however within a short while it became a competition to see who could spot further issues to do with speed and sight when going back over the test videos.

I can happily confirm that the team I worked with in creating this application have been more than happy with my thoughts and findings on usability testing. So much so in fact, that they’ve made it a weekly occurrence! Participants are dragged in from all areas and rewarded with vouchers and free food. The money spent on them clearly outweighs the lost sales and man hours that would occur when attempting to do changes last minute or after release.

If you haven’t done any usability test yet, what are you waiting for? The cost incurred for the above was around £30 total (Silverback was used while still on a trial license) and the benefits to the business were a great deal more than that. Happy testing.