October 12, 2010

Usability Testing: It’s When and Not Why

The keyboard of laptop notebook / Клавиатура ноутбука

Our clients often ask us why they should conduct usability testing with their website, mobile site or application. They say, “We’ve talked about the site endlessly and now it looks great! Why do we need to take the time to get more feedback before we launch?” Task-based usability testing is one of the best ways we have to understand how users will succeed and fail with an online experience. While we have a number of qualitative and quantitative tools that help us understand the mindset and behavior of site users, we can never be sure that the site will work for them until we recruit real users and sit them down in front of our work.

Often, a better question than “Why?”  is “When should I conduct usability testing?” When we are working on a user experience design for a client we are generally in one of two positions. Either we are designing a new experience from scratch for a new offering or a new brand. Or we are reworking an existing online experience to align with revised branding, to incorporate new technology or enhance user experience.

In the first case, the best answer to “When?” is almost always “As soon and as often as possible.” We do not need a fully implemented website to be able to gain significant information from users about our new design. We can start usability testing with simple static wireframes using what is called “paper prototype usability testing.” Paper testing gives us a chance to get early feedback when we are introducing a new paradigm or structure to users. Later testing can be conducted with static site designs and even later with the fully implemented dynamic site. Research has shown that five users are sufficient to find 90% of the problems with a site, so each iteration can be conducted quickly. At each step in the process, conducting short, quick tests that focus on problem areas can help us avoid costly fixes later down the road and gives us objective data on which to base our design decisions.

In the second case, reworking or revising an online experience, the best answer is usually “Before and after.” We recommend conducting baseline usability testing with the existing experience to find out what is working well and what is not working for current users. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This baseline testing becomes an essential input into our design process. Later we conduct similarly constructed tests with the new design to understand where we were able to make improvements and what still needs work. These later tests can be iterated as the design progresses.

So if you are asking yourself “Why?”, the answer is “Because we need to hear from real users to ensure the best web, mobile or application experience.” And if you are asking your self “When?”, the answer is “It depends.”

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