Usability Testing: Easy as Pie


By Marli Mesibov

Anyone can make a pie, yet bakers are still in business.

Among usability professionals, a debate rages over the idea of discount, or in-house usability studies.  Supporters, such as author Steve Krug and usability expert Christine Perfetti have been praised and condemned, commended and vehemently opposed in their views. Through the continuing debate, the supporters agree upon the need for every company to do basic usability testing for every product – without the help of the professionals.

Discount Testing: Boon or Bane?

There is a strong case for discount usability studies. In Krug’s book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, he points out that many companies don’t have the money to hire a professional usability company. He and other supporters contend that most companies have the ability to do their own testing. They only need to learn how, and recognize that it doesn’t have to be a big production. At Above the Fold we’ve come to the same conclusion. As we discussed with Christine Perfetti, there are plenty of “quick and dirty” usability tests to start you off.

Erika Aoyama, October 28, 2002

Those against in-house usability testing bring up some concerns worth mentioning, however.  Some are concerned that businesses without professional training will do a poor job of testing, thus creating inferior products, and therefore discrediting the value of usability testing. Some are concerned that usability testing is easy as pie, and anyone can do a decent job, which would put all usability testing shops out of work. Are either of these concerns likely scenarios? Not by ATF’s count.

As Joe Baz notes in our second New Years Resolution, UX is a mindset, and “it’s one we want everyone in the Boston business community to have when dealing with software.”  But how do we know this won’t result in poorly run usability studies, or put us out of business by convincing all our clients we’re unnecessary?

UX: It’s a Mindset

Let’s do a role playing assignment.

Imagine you are the head of a marketing department for a web application. You have a budget of $10,000, to spend on improving your application. You know you have a broad audience to reach and you decide to run a usability test to measure the intuitiveness of the new homepage design. Let’s consider whether you can lead your own usability tests in this scenario. Given that you have a broad audience, as well as a specific aspect of the app to test, it is well within your realm to create a test, invite some prospective users to participate, and watch or record them as they complete the test.

In fact, role playing, as we just did, is a very effective way you can help testers to look at your product in the proper context. This is one of many techniques you might choose to incorporate, if you are inviting friends and coworkers to participate in a low-cost usability test. In this way, even if the people you invite aren’t your exact customer base, they can test for the issues at hand, and you don’t need a professional user experience consultant to lead the test.

Watch Steve Krug’s video to learn more about leading your own usability tests.

Not every situation is ideal for self-led usability testing, however. There are many examples in which your business may determine that running an in-house usability test is too daunting, and rightly so. If you’re creating a medical web app geared toward cardiologists, role playing won’t be enough to give the tester the context, perspective, and basic medical terminology necessary to explore the web app. Here are a few specific situations in which a professional user experience consultant may be of use:

  1. You are testing something terminology-dependent (as in the example of the cardiologist-geared web app, above).
  2. You are creating an app with an interface designed to accommodate three distinct user roles, such as partners, customers, and employees. Orchestrating a usability test to accommodate a distinct and separate focus on each of the three roles can be a logistical nightmare.
  3. Your usability test is a field study in nature. For example, if you are testing a mobile app to find out how accurate the directions are, you may need to shadow the various participants as they test the app in real time. By its nature, this type of test is more complex and more time consuming.

Raising the Bar with Internal Usability Testing

We are user experience consultants, and it is in our best interest for every company to pursue user friendly web and mobile applications.  As Krug writes, “The purpose… is not to make you a usability professional or a usability testing expert; it’s just to get you to do some testing.” Every test will help you to learn something about your users.  The more testing companies do internally, the higher the bar will be for app usability, and the more user experience professionals will be called in for more complex studies.

As we discussed last week with Christine, usability testing is “a tool to help you learn what’s working or what’s not working with your product.” Just as the best lawyer is the one who takes the time to teach you some basic guidelines, allowing you to draft smaller contracts without running everything by him or her, we know that as UX consultants we need to help the companies around us to achieve our New Year’s Eve resolution. Let’s Evangelize UX!

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