Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Usability Testing. Oh, The Things You Can Learn.

Usability testing as an ongoing activity ...

"I can't say exactly when it happened. Somewhere along the way, the simple technique of usability testing became a validation process. Users were put in front of the screen, asked to perform tasks, and measured, like rats locating cheese in a maze. The results of such studies were statistics, such as 5 out of 13 subjects completed 75% of the tasks successfully and the average task time was 4 minutes, 22 seconds.

Because such studies required working products to test the subjects against, they were often deferred to the very end of the development cycle. The statistics became pass/fail criteria, however, when users failed to complete the tasks there was often little the developers could do about it, having spent their available schedule developing the product.

At best, the information would help support reps answer questions and guide training materials. At worst, (and all too often,) the report detailing the results would be filed, unread. The team would go on to create more designs, without any clear insights to guide them to improvements.

Preventing Usability Problems in the First Place
If you trace any usability problem to its inception -- the point where the problem was introduced into the design -- you'll find the same underlying cause: someone on the design team didn't have a key piece of information. Had they had that information, they would've made a different design decision. That design decision would, subsequently, have resulted in a different design -- one without the usability problem.

The most successful teams have learned that the best way to produce a usable product is to make informed decisions from the outset. They don't look at usability testing as a final validation tool. Instead, they see the technique as a method to learn the necessary information to create great designs in the first place.

What Teams Need To Learn
Usability tests can't tell you everything you need to know to make every decision right. However, if you pay attention to all the clues, you can learn a tremendous amount.

You'll learn about your users: What are their goals and how do they go about achieving them?

You'll also learn about your design: How well does it assist your users as they attempt to achieve their goals? Where does the design get in the way?

Moreover, you'll learn about something we don't see talked about very often -- your team: Which members come to the table with the knowledge and experience necessary to create great designs? What areas do you need to augment with more input from users? You can find out a lot about your team's strengths and weaknesses by looking for clues hidden throughout the testing process."    (Continued via UIE)    [Usability Resources]

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