Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Usability testing is HOT

For many of us, usability testing is a necessary evil. For others, it’s too much work, or it’s too disruptive to the development process. As you might expect, I have issues with all that. It’s unfortunate that some teams don’t see the value in observing people use their designs. Done well, it can be an amazing event in the life of a design. Even done very informally, it can still show up useful insights that can help a team make informed design decisions. But I probably don’t have to tell you that.

Usability testing can be enormously elevating for teams at all stages of UX maturity. In fact, there probably isn’t nearly enough of it being done. Even on enlightened teams that know about and do usability tests, they’re probably not doing it often enough. There seems to be a correlation between successful user experiences and how often and how much the designers and developers spend time observing users. (hat tip Jared Spool)

Observing people using early designs can be energizing as designers and developers get a chance to see reactions to ideas. I’ve seen teams walk away with insights from observing people use their designs that they couldn’t have got any other way – and then make better designs than they’ve ever made. Close to launch, it is exciting – yes, exciting – to see a design perform as useful, usable, and desirable.

I’ve been negative on usability testing and our failure of imagination regarding bringing the method up to date, lately. But there’s a lot of good to any basic usability test. In fact, I went looking for the worth, the value, the alluring in usability testing a few weeks ago when I asked on Quora, “What’s the sexiest thing about usability testing?”

Some of the answers surprised me. Some of the answers were more about what people love about usability testing than what makes it seductive. But let’s go with seductive. People who find usability testing hot say it’s about data that can end the opinion wars, revelations and surprises, and getting perspective about real use, motivations, and context of use.  Okay. We’re nerds.

The kiss of data
We always learn from users. Of course, we could just ask. But observing is so much more interesting. People do unpredictable things; they create workarounds, hacks, and alternative paths to make tools fit for their use.

This is the best case I can think of for watching rather than asking. From this observing, we get data. Juicy, luscious data like verbal protocols, task success rates, and physical behavior. This package makes it much easier to make good design decisions because we know have evidence on which to create theories about what should work better. There’s nothing like having hard evidence for going with a design direction – or changing direction.

Voyeuristic revelations
When designers, developers, and stakeholders of all persuasions get to observe people using a design – especially the first time – there’s often an “ah ha!” moment. (That’s the clean version.) Observers exclaim, “Wow, that was amazing!” when they see something surprising, both the good and the bad. The reaction that follows a completed usability study often is, “Damn. I wish we’d done this years ago. It would have saved us a ton of rework!” After watching one over-qualified participant struggle with a design recently, I heard a client say, “If that guy can’t do it, we’re in serious trouble.” That’s powerful.

When participants are surprised, that’s when the real fun begins. Not everyone likes surprises in their user interfaces, especially if they’re not the delightful Easter egg kind. While a team hopes not to hear, “I feel lost and abandoned,” you’ve got to wonder how bad it’s been when a participant squeals, “Oh, my gosh! This is so much better! When can I have it?!” Those eureka moments can reveal what to do to improve a design or an experience.

Relationship dynamics
One of the magical things about observing users working with a design is that suddenly, disputes within the team melt away. Chances are, the disputing parties were both wrong because neither (unless they have a ton of experience already observing these kinds of users in this domain doing this task) could accurately predict how the user would behave and perform.

Now, even with observations from watching just one user, there’s data on which to base design decisions. Data trumps gut. Data outweighs feelings. Data can put to rest those endless, circular discussions where inevitably, the person with the biggest paycheck or the most important title wins. The opinion wars come to an end.

When the whole team is involved in deciding what to test and observing sessions, everyone can share in making and carrying out agreed design decisions. Whenever a question comes up where no one knows but everyone has an opinion, the answer in a team doing usability testing is, “Let’s do some user research on that,” or “Let’s find out what users do.”

For the love of users
It’s so easy to get caught up in the business goals and issues with the underlying technology of a design. It’s so easy to stay in the safe bubble of the office, cranking out code, designs, plans, and reports. It’s easy to lose touch with users.

Teams that spend a couple of hours observing their users every few weeks keep that connection. They fall in love with their users. They relish the chance to see for themselves why people do the things they do with designs.

Getting out of their own heads, a successful team uses usability testing to get perspective, learn about users’ contexts, and remember the people and their stories. For these teams, usability testing is inspiring. And that’s hot.

What’s sexy about usability testing?
Observing people use a design can be revelatory. It turns up the volume on design by helping teams make informed design decisions. What’s sexy about usability testing? Data for evidence-based design. Ending opinion wars. Knowing users from observations and surprises. Getting perspective and knowledge of context of use.

The UX equivalent of a romantic dinner or a walk on the beach? Perhaps not, even for a geek girl like me. But it can be exciting, fun, funny, encouraging, and empowering. Just what you want from a relationship. That’s pretty seductive, if you ask me.


  1. Great post Dana, and couldn't agree with you more. It's always very exciting watching and wading through the test results, and discovering a huge amount of things you would never have thought of without the help of usability testing. It never ceases to amaze me just what sort of things you can discover.

    Thanks very much for sharing!

  2. We are getting one of our first looks at beta users in the field this Thursday and Friday. They will be taking their first pass at one of our new instructional interfaces - very exciting for us. I really appreciate the thoughts you've captured here, and will circulate the team that's doing the site visit.

  3. I feel exactly that way too about Usability tests. Great post Dana! :)

  4. Great piece and am fully in agreement. My comment on this is simple and straight and augments your argument - we as service providers need to always remember an anthem “if it is not usable for our customers it is not useful"

  5. Yes I really appreciate the thoughts you've shared here. Thanks Dana for your great post.

  6. So delighted with the response to this! I needed a pep talk, and it sounded like you all did, too. Thanks for the wonderful comments. And, keep up the good work!


  7. Great Stuff. Thanks for sharing with us. :)

  8. Nice read, thanks for sharing Dana! Will share it with some people in the company for sure!

  9. A very interesting and delightful post! Do you recommend any resources for learning about usability testing for beginners?

  10. There are a lot of great sources for beginners. My book with Jeff Rubin is one, Handbook of Usability Testing.

    But you might start with Steve Krug's books, Don't Make Me Think, and Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

    UIE.com also has lots of archived webinars and podcasts that are about usability testing, recruiting participants, and user research techniques.

  11. Hey Dana,

    I was just doing some research on the usability topic. It s hard to find any in German. But now I m glad that I found your site. There is quite some useful information here about what to think of and what steps to take.

    Please keep up the good work :)