In an earlier post, we focused on our experience with usability testing, much of it conceptual. Why is usability testing important? How can usability testing add value to my project? To help you get started, we’re taking a closer look at the nitty gritty of usability testing, like when to test, what type of testing to conduct, and who to include in testing.
When to Test
When is usability testing helpful? Nearly always. When should you actually do it? When it has the potential to spur conversation, when there is doubt, when designs come into conflict with goals, when requests conflict with web standards… there are lots of ideal and obvious times to test. Think of usability testing as a faceoff in hockey (Go Hawks!). It’s an opportunity to reevaluate and start from a fresh perspective. Think of testing as an option you can use to validate or improve the outcome of the overall design.
A guiding principle: assumptions, even educated, intelligent guesses, are no match for good old-fashioned user feedback. In one real-world example, where usability testing would have made a significant difference, we had a client come to us in the midst of a redesign of their website. The page in question contained some new functionality and content. At first glance, I assumed that future users would welcome both. When we actually tested the page later in the project, users unanimously said they didn’t want to see, nor would they use, a chunk of content that was taking up a third of the home page and the navigation. That was a huge discovery. Testing earlier would have saved time and costs.
Take this opportunity to learn from our 20/20 hindsight. This is a common scenario that you will run into on any project. Usability testing early and often helps turn a “situation” into a learning experience that you can plan for in the future. It can be helpful to create a checklist of usability testing scenarios that you can refer to when planning for projects, such as project type, timing, benefits, that you refine over time.
Types of Testing
This topic could be an article of its own (and feel free to let us know in the comments section if you’d like to read more…). Usability testing might include anything from a quick sit-down with a co-worker to an hour-long session with an actual user. It’s important to note that a usability test doesn’t have to be done the same way every time. It can be VERY informal. Take our previous example: had I shown just 4-5 users the home page, we could have focused our time differently. That test could have been just showing users the home page and getting a quick reaction, and while hardcore usability people might call this type of ‘test’ something else, it’s extremely helpful nonetheless. Get your pages out in front of users and get their feedback. It will pay dividends immediately.
Who to Include
Recruiting users for a usability test is always a challenge. It’s time consuming and can be expensive, depending on the test you’re running. While my tenure on a project might only be long enough to participate in one test on behalf of the client, I often try to forge an ongoing relationship with test participants, and ask if we can follow-up with them in the future. Establishing working relationships with your customers is critical, especially when it comes to testing your products.
Informally, friends, family, and colleagues are the first test subjects I turn to. I consider the problem I’m trying to resolve, then break my potential participants into groups. For example, at the office I have the choice of asking executives, account managers, developers, or user experience and design experts. I consider their background and expertise as it relates to my problem. Are they technically proficient? What’s their particular demographic? Are they familiar with the product or service offering? People love to be asked for their opinions, and are typically happy to spend a few minutes on some preliminary testing.
In this series, we’ve looked at why you should conduct usability testing, as well as the who, what, and when of actually executing that testing – so what is the bottom line? While usability testing is not exactly a magic bullet, it can drive significant improvements while saving time, resources, and money. That’s not magic – but it’s pretty close.