Like exercise, usability testing is something we all say we want to do but somehow never get around to doing. Yet, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Find out how to take the first steps toward a real usability testing regimen.
Usability testing is a lot like exercise—most people say it’s very important to do regularly, but few people actually do it, even irregularly. Yet, just as we like to claim the benefits of regular exercise ("I can have dessert tonight—I’ll go to the gym tomorrow"), we also like to claim the benefits of usability testing ("Check out our new, easy-to-use features") without doing the work. We value ease-of-use in our products, and we genuinely want them to work well for our endusers, yet somehow we don’t do the usability testing that would support our intentions. To confound matters, when we do usability testing, we often do it too late in the development process to have a significant impact, or the results are minimized or ignored and so have no effect on the quality of the end product.
It's a frustrating situation if you happen to be the one who champions usability testing in your organization. You know the value of usability testing. You know it will help the product more closely match your users' needs and expectations, and will reduce the chance for confusion and calls to the help center—but you can't get the buy-in of the developers, project managers, marketers, or upper level management to get it done. In fact, you probably hit outright resistance at all levels. It’s not that these stakeholders are determined to produce a product that isn't useful or usable for the end-user. Often, they simply don't know what usability testing buys them; sometimes they even perceive it as a threat. The good news is that nothing turns skeptics into believers quite as quickly as seeing usability testing in action. So, put it into action. You can run your first usability tests for maximum effect with little or no money—this article will show you how.
No Time Like the Present
I once worked for a large company that proclaimed publicly that it championed usability—the company even hired a few usability experts to prove it. But behind the scenes, a different reality existed. The usability experts were isolated in separate departments and generally ignored. Usability testing wasn't funded and wasn't done, and products went to market with significant usability problems that caused support costs to skyrocket. There was simply no place in the company's development process or culture for the usability testing it claimed to value.
The usability experts took a chance. Though no one had asked for it or funded it, they conducted a usability test on a soon-to-be-released product. In addition to recruiting participants who were representative of the target users, they convinced several high-ranking VPs to serve as participants in the test, one of whom was directly responsible for the product being tested.
The results of the study were dramatic. Most participants, including the VP who was responsible for the product, were unable to accomplish even the most basic tasks, despite trying for more than an hour. They made numerous errors and got increasingly frustrated as they labored over the tasks. Consequently, three key things happened. First, the product was held back for rework—an unprecedented move given that the product release had been announced. Second, a centralized usability department was born almost overnight and grew to include fifteen professionals within a year. (The new department reported directly to one of the VPs who had been in the test.) Third, the company changed its development process to require usability testing, not just at the end, but at strategic intervals throughout the process.
The Fear Factor
You probably won't have to do anything quite so dramatic to get usability testing into your company’s culture, especially