As the 21st century grinds on, it’s easy to feel like a lab rat at the hands of Big Tech. In fact – User Experience designers create lab-rat style scenarios to monitor how people use, interact, and struggle with tech products in the R&D phase. This lab-ratification of end users is known as Usability Testing. Usability testing games out the functionality of developing products and interfaces, by observing real users in action. User Experience researchers and designers act as onlookers, while these users go through the motions of completing tasks with the product. This article will cover the key concepts of usability testing, and emphasize its importance in creating user-friendly products.
What Usability Testing is (and isn’t)
Usability testing essentially evaluates a product or service by testing it with representative users (usability.gov), often the terms “usability testing” and “user testing” are used interchangeably. Some UX insiders take issue with this. “User testing” can be done outside of the gaze of the designers and dev team, in the user’s own environment and on their own terms. Usability testing, however, needs to be closely monitored. Users are tasked while observers watch, listen, and take notes.
If you’re in the tech or design realm, you’ve likely been pestered by friends or colleagues to run through some tasks on a beta version of an app or platform, and subsequently fill out a survey evaluating what you used – offering input on how to make it better. This would be user testing, rather than usability testing, because you’re not being monitored, not thinking aloud while you try to complete tasks, and the design team isn’t watching you live. While user testing can be a guiding light, usability testing offers much deeper insight.
There is a whole realm of R&D terminology that describes critical feedback processes in the product design journey. Usability testing, while often confused with some of these other processes, is its own animal. So let’s talk about what Usability Testing isn’t. It’s not A/B testing, which tests one version of something versus another (version A vs. version B). Nor is it the same as a focus group, although a lot of elements overlap with those of a focus group; subjects express thoughts about the product, as notetakers record and observe. Usability testing is different from surveys, and in-house testing. It’s different from heat-maps, which create color-coded maps of common touch-points within an interface. All of these can be stages of R&D, but none of them are the same as usability testing, which relies on the lab-rat nature of users being observed in real-time as they try out a product cold, and vocalize what they’re experiencing.
Why it’s Important
Why do this? Why lord over your end users as though they’re test subjects? Well, this process is critically important to reaching a user-friendly product. Usability testing is crucial because it validates the working prototype, determining whether or not there are design flaws, pitfalls; places where users can get lost, etc. User flows (the path that the user takes toward completing any given task) can become complicated; typically with each screen having variable paths leading to and from it. Designers and devs, knowing how the sausage is made, can easily become blind to flaws in their own design. For better and worse, creators are intimately aware of how to use what they’ve built. Watching a random user go through the product’s processes without this inside knowledge shines a floodlight onto what needs to change to make the product better.
The process of watching users in real time, thinking aloud, as they’re confronted with a product, tells designers everything they need to know. It shows in a very real way, how their product will be received. The process of thinking aloud is strongly encouraged when it comes to end-users and their experiences during a usability test. If they actively talk through the steps they’re taking, what they’re trying to do by clicking, pushing, navigating – the product designers can see how people interpret the product, and what people are thinking while they use it.
Recording the process is (in part) what makes it so valuable. Recording users’ frustration, stumbling blocks, or delight with usability is tangible proof, and valuable research, into how the product is working (or not). And with thinking aloud being emphasized, you have users on camera, talking about exactly what they’re having trouble with, as they encounter the trouble. The objectives for the next stage of development become crystal clear, when your design team is moving forward with this type of input.
Time and Money
When pushing a team toward a finished product, each step of the way, two recurring questions are “how much is it going to cost?” and “how long is it going to take?” Temporally, your mileage may vary, but at least in terms of an outline, there are number of steps that need to be taken when it comes to executing the proper timeline for usability testing. The design team must create test scenarios (based upon the average tasks an end user is likely to be performing with the product), they themselves should pilot the entire test process before subjecting their test subjects to it. When a good test is devised, the team tests the users, crucially recording the process and having the users think aloud through the tasks, after the tests there are number of ways to analyze the data, which is then reported and presented, and used to inform the next iteration of the design.
Usability testing can be relatively low-budget depending upon what you’re looking to achieve, and how you source your test subjects. Possible costs incurred could be the rental of a space in which to conduct tests, the rental or purchase of audiovisual recording equipment to document the test process, costs for recruiting, and compensating or incentivizing – otherwise accommodating your participants.
That’s it! Of course there is much more nuance to the art of good usability testing, but these are the basic tenants. Users need to feel *a bit* like lab rats, as they very vocally go through the motions of using your prototype. This is crucial to understanding how users are using your product, and what improvements need to be made to make it better and easier to use. All of this can be done on a relatively short timeline and minimal budget, depending upon the specificity of your goals and the data you’d like to report on. #teamASAR is happy to flesh this concept out for you. Get in touch!