You may not realise it, but you’re already an expert on usability.
Every time you visit a website, operate your mobile phone or interact with virtually any object, your brain is making judgements and decisions based on how hard you have to think about the act of using them.
So, when you hear about the ‘black art’ of usability or the rather scary-sounding User Centred Design philosophy, fear not: it’s actually really straightforward.
This article aims to delve a little deeper into some of the methods used; when to use them; and what they can do for you and your product.
This is the simplest and quickest – and therefore cheapest – way of testing your product’s ease-of-use.
Although – as we’ve already said – we’re all usability experts, sometimes a fresh pair of eyes and some real-world experience is invaluable.
Having your product undergo expert evaluation involves handing it over to a recognised or qualified usability professional. They will ask you some key questions (“who’s it for?”, “what’s it trying to achieve?”, “what do you want users to be able to do?” etc), then scrutinise your product with those answers in mind.
Generally, you’ll receive a written report containing their observations and recommendations. Ideally, the recommendations won’t be along the lines of “chuck it in the bin and start again” – rather, they’ll be quick and cheap changes you can make which may well have a significant impact on the usability – and success – of your product.
User testing is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘usability’.
Based on extensive research and real results from the likes of Jakob Neilsen, user testing involves sitting a small number of real people in front of your product. Like that conundrum where you only need around 57 people in a room before you find two people with the same birthday, experience has shown that you only need around 5 or 6 people to uncover the majority of usability problems your product might have.
First, a list of tasks based on your product’s key objectives is created (e.g. “log in to the website and find out how to buy orange widgets”, “find out how much striped widgets cost”).
Next, each user will be placed in front of your product and asked to complete the tasks. A usability expert will sit with them, observing their actions, behaviour and listening to what they have to say (users are encouraged to talk out loud as they complete the tasks).
Ideally, the usability expert does not help or assist the user in any way. Even if the user can’t complete the task given to them, the expert will record that fact and move on to the next task.
By the end of a user test, you’ll get a report and recommendation, similar to an expert evaluation. However, this one will be based on real-life evidence of how actual users were able to use your product.
Due to the time and logistics involved, user testing can be costly. That said, it can be done a number of ways, ranging from expensive video-recorded sessions conducted via a two-way mirror; to more affordable options such as roping in friends and colleagues to help.
As usual, you get what you pay for, but user testing with real users is always invaluable, especially if done early enough in the product life-cycle to catch and correct any usability issues that come up.
As technology evolves, so do the methods used for usability testing. While simple paper or web-based surveys are still valid, other more high-tech options exist.
This is a fascinating method of usability testing. It involves setting up equipment which – via the use of small cameras – records a user’s eye movements as they view a product.
Best-used for testing visual designs and layouts (it is effective for web designs, advertising and magazines), the results can – literally – be eye-opening.
After an eye-tracking session, you’ll receive a heat map, showing where users focused their gaze, and for how long. This can help you see the effectiveness of use of images, colours and where your calls to action are situated – all of which can make a real difference to how people interact with your product.
Due to the specialised nature of the equipment and software used, eye-tracking tends to be expensive. If however you have a high-profile visual campaign or major design launch, it can prove extremely useful in highlighting how effective that is.
Advances in connection speeds mean you no longer need users to be in the same place as the product you want to test.
Remote testing takes the same approach as usability testing; however, here it is done over the internet, with the users connecting to your product (which of course needs to be online itself) and carrying out tasks on it.
Results – including audio and video, as well as mouse and keyboard interactions – are viewable in real-time and are usually recorded for later observation and recommendation.
Again, costs can be on the high side, but if it’s difficult to get users in the same room as your product for whatever reason, it is a good option.
The Bottom Line
Usability testing of any sort is invaluable. Best carried out early on in the product development lifecycle, any one of these methods can highlight issues that would be costly to fix after your product has gone live.
So, although we’re all experts, believing we know best can be risky. Get your product usability tested and see your product as others see it. You’ll be surprised – and pleased – at the results.
FourthWall Web has over 6 years of usability experience. We can carry out expert evaluations of your product, and provide consultancy on all aspects of usability testing, including putting you in touch with companies who can help. Contact us for further details or to discuss any aspect of usability in more detail.