Astronomical Usability: Why You Should Test


By Heather O'Neill

Writing Lines: I am Not my customer.Why should you test? One simple reason: You are not your customer. This is not a situation specific to SaaS – from novelists to hi-rise architects, it’s common for the end user to not be the creator.  NASA space station engineers, for example, are not astronauts, yet it is imperative that the space station be designed to best equip the astronauts, not the engineers.  Without talking to a team of astronauts, engineers can only guess at what is necessary for surviving long durations of time in space.  On a less epic scale, the same is true of your software and your users.  Without talking to your users, even your best guess is still only a guess at what their pain points are, and what they want from your application.

Obvious is Obvious: Draw Your Users In through Details

It’s true that many best guesses are on target.  Obviously you’ve done some research, and you have an interest in your customers so you have a general idea of what they need.  Space engineers, for instance, know that astronauts need to eat and sleep, as well as other specifics, such as the way to level gravity in the ship, or a special design for pens or pencils that can write in space.  But that isn’t really enough. The engineers can’t know, without speaking to the astronauts, that many astronauts may prefer a particular piece of hardware or software for research, or that a surprising number of them could require higher door handles due to the average astronaut’s height.  To really get it right, the engineers will need to listen to their users.  And so should you.

A strong case in point is the launch of the new Google Instant feature.  Unlike the failed Google Wave, Google Instant has found success among searchers, due in large part to their rigorous testing with real users.  A recent CNET article on the subject explains it thus:

Over the course of several weeks, Google continued to tweak Instant in front of new testers until it was finally confident in the product. It claims those users became fans: of the 160 people who tested the product, just one said they didn’t plan on using Google with the Instant feature turned on, [John] Boyd said.

Through testing Google achieved several excellent results, including:

  1. A product that was user ready and friendly; Google didn’t stop until the user testers were satisfied
  2. A pre-launch fan base of their product; It often happens that as you adjust your product to your testing results, your test users notice the difference and buy in to your product.

It’s NOT Rocket Science

Engineers are building rockets for astronauts; you are building software “rockets” for your users.  But hearing from your users doesn’t have to involve rocket science.  There are many approaches to getting information on what your users think, ranging from basic to detailed.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • A quick and basic method: Outline one or two main goals of the software and put the application in front of users.  You’ll be amazed at what you might hear!
  • Take it to the next level: Hire a UX team like us to conduct a full usability test, including data analysis and solution recommendations.
  • Never do this: What ever you choose, don’t just guess at what your users might be doing. Your space ship might not make it through orbit.

To really stand out amid myriad software/web options, it’s the attention to detail and your user’s needs that will do the trick. You need to go above and beyond the obvious solutions, beyond the best practices, and learn what your astronauts want. There are always details your use cases can’t account for. You may not have known they existed – but some of your users will.

Feel free to share a time that your product could have benefited from user testing, or a time that user testing really brought your product to a new level.

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