Three Myths of Usability Testing

Tony Fugolo, February 25th, 2014

Usability testing is arguably the most important part of the user experience design process. For those unfamiliar with the term “usability testing,” it refers to a number of methods that can be used to evaluate an interface by observing a user’s interactions. These observations are critical because we learn directly from the user what we can do to improve the design of the interface to better meet the user’s needs.

Unfortunately, usability testing isn’t a reality for every project. In many instances, time and budget constraints either marginalize testing or eliminate it completely. And more often than not, it’s because usability testing is misunderstood or undervalued.

Here are a few myths about usability testing that are worth debunking:

1. Usability testing is elaborate and expensive.

In some cases it certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive if it’s approached the right way. There are plenty of low-fidelity testing methods at a UX designer’s disposal, such as card sorting, tree testing, paper prototyping, etc. I won’t go into the details of how these methods work here (I will in my next blog), but suffice to say that with these techniques, a conceptual prototype that is ready for testing can be put together with only a Sharpie, paper and scissors. There are also more solid options for conducting remote testing like Adobe Connect or GoTo Meeting, and even unmoderated remote testing like TryMyUI and Usabilla.

Also, conducting a large number of tests doesn’t necessarily yield better results than the insights drawn from just a few sessions in a single afternoon. Most of the time, after about 5 tests, the majority of usability problems are revealed and it’s time for a revision.

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An example of homemade paper tree testing- a great way to test your taxonomy and navigation

2. Usability testing is something we do after designing the interface to make sure it works ok.

It doesn’t make much sense to test only AFTER creating a design. If a lot of resources have been spent putting together a nearly-complete UI design, then fixing a problem could potentially require a lot of time and effort. It’s much better to incorporate usability testing sessions early and often because usability issues that are found toward the beginning of the design process are relatively easy to fix. So multiple testing sessions after any project milestone, especially in the initial phases of the design process, are very important because they give designers a chance to fix big problems and validate their revisions in the next iteration.

3. Usability testing requires representative users from a target audience.

Most of the time, anybody who knows the basics of the web will make for a good tester. Designing a site so that only its target audience can make sense of it is not usually a good idea. And the expert users will not be put off by something that is clear enough for anybody to understand. A lot of time can potentially be spent on recruiting the people that we think will perfectly represent the target audience…which can also make scheduling tests a nightmare. Instead, people who are accessible, such as friends, colleagues, roommates, and family members are all likely to be great testers.

Even on a tight budget, it’s possible to uncover a lot of very important information with usability testing. The best insights about a user experience will almost always come from the users, so usability testing will always be a vital part of the design process. [article]

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