By John Morrison on Sep 20, 2007
Here's an attempt to talk a little bit about "Usability Testing".
We begin by taking a quick look at the term, Usability. According to the Usability Professionals' Association, "Usability is an approach to product development that incorporates direct user feedback throughout the development cycle in order to reduce costs and create products and tools that meet user needs."
Usability testing provides the opportunity to receive feedback from the very people the application is meant for. And, the consequences of building something without getting user feedback is obvious to anyone who's in the industry !
Whilst planning for Usability Testing, its easy to constrain it to be more of a "Validation" type technique. Usability testing & the information gathered from the exercise, should serve to make informed design & development decisions right from the outset, thereby acting in more of a "preventative" role. The idea in the case of Usability testing is to test early & test often. Usability testing lets the design and development teams identify problems before they are deeply entrenched. The earlier those problems are found and fixed, the less expensive the fixes are. As the project progresses, it becomes more and more difficult and expensive to make major design changes. The more you test and change based on what you learn, the more confident you can be that your application will meet your objectives and your users' needs when it is released.
An iterative process involving developing prototypes, testing it with users, analyzing the results, making needed changes based on the results and repeating the test, analysis and revision cycle is the recommended way to produce applications that are more usable (and acceptable) to users. We could also probably say that, in the initial stages of application development, users would be called to perform tests that are more "Exploratory" in nature. This feedback helps clarify direction for interface design, navigation, etc. In later stages, prior to release, "Validation" type Usability tests are performed to validate that interfaces and design are "usable" and feedback from earlier stages are incorporated.
The folks who should actually be doing Usability Testing (executing tests) should ideally not be anyone associated with the product or organization. A profile of potential subjects (folks who will perform Usability Tests) should be prepared that mimics end user attributes in as fairly and representative manner as is feasible. Based on this profile, subjects may be sourced from market research, temp or contracting agencies.
During Usability testing, representative users try to find information or use functionality on the Web site / Application, while observers, watch, listen, and take notes. The purpose of a usability test is to identify areas where users struggle with the application and make recommendations for improvement. The most likely goals in Usability Testing or areas that are monitored and measured include, the Time (taken to accomplish specific scenarios or tasks), degree of Accuracy (covers inaccurate menu or navigation choices, errors and lack of clarity or misunderstandings), the Success (in accomplishing the set tasks wherein users are able to complete the scenario they were asked to perform using expected steps) and importantly, Satisfaction of the users (broken down and measured per area such as navigation, information search, etc.)
If you are developing an application, your product must allow users to do their tasks at least as quickly with as few errors and as much success and satisfaction as their current way of working. Ideally, it should let them be more quicker, more accurate, more successful, and more satisfied. Otherwise, there's little chance of customer delight.
That was a brief overview of Usability Testing. While it may not address all aspects and intricacies of this subject, the intent is that it hopefully arouses sufficient curiosity and interest for folks who are not familiar with this subject, to go and make your own exploration.