Usability Testing, Part 1: “What is it?” and “Why do it?”

This post begins a series of posts discussing usability testing: first the “what and why” of usability testing, followed by how to prepare and conduct usability tests, then finally how to capture observations and apply the important insights gleaned from usability testing.

Mobile testing that records both the test participant and her screen interactions.

Usability testing assesses if your product (work-in-progress or existing) will accomplish what it was set out to do in a manner that the person using it deems successful and enjoyable. The technique asks people who are or would be the real users of a product to navigate task-based scenarios representing real-world use cases of a product. This testing is administered, observed and discussed in a controlled environment, with subsequent insights captured as potential improvements to the product.

Real-world users (often students, given our U of T context) have the innate ability to identify the oversights in product design. It is important to be aware that our professional experience as U of T staff and faculty often biases us towards a fluency in jargon, business processes, institutional policies, business organization and information hierarchies that a layperson shouldn’t reasonably be expected to know. Through usability testing you’ll be able to quickly identify issues that would otherwise cause the majority of your product’s users to falter.

Desktop testing with on-screen task prompts and observers capturing feedback.

Structured testing enhances the confidence we have in our findings and allows for an efficient workflow. By creating a script of specific tasks and repeating the same testing/feedback protocol with numerous people, you’ll quickly see trends emerge that clearly illustrate challenges users face when trying find important information and complete important tasks. Catching these potential issues before development work begins in earnest saves resources (both time and money) for your project team and avoids wasted time, frustration and unintended outcomes for users.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this introduction to usability testing and are interested in learning how to take advantage of it with your own work. Next time we’ll dive into the specifics of what’s required for your testing environment and how to prepare an effective script of testing tasks.

As always, please contact us to discuss this topic further or ask any questions you have.