The Delicate Art of Usability Testing

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This week, my students spent planning their usability tests for our ‘client’, NOWBC, a local co-op that has an online farmer’s market.  The idea is to discover what are the main stumbling blocks or areas of confusion in signing up and using the service, and compare it to a few other online vendors.  They will then couple this with the observations they made during past field trips to NOWBC’s “offline” competitors to come up with some concrete recommendations.

When I put together this week’s lecture, I realized that I couldn’t pinpoint where I exactly learned how to do usability testing.  Certainly it was discussed–in theory, at least–while I was in school but no hands-on practice.  Most likely, I’ve sponged bits and pieces over the years from talented colleagues who hail from HCI backgrounds.  Somehow a lot of it has become second nature, but when you stop to dissect it all, it’s actually a very complex process and in some cases probably worthy of having a project manager overseeing all the details!

As I reviewed the student’s test plans and observed (& in some cases participated) the dry runs, I realized how much of it is a nimble balance of hopping between the scripted and the improv.  And of course, the very careful way you must proceed with phrasing and questions, to keep everything as neutral and natural as possible.  Many students commented how much harder it was than they expected to nail the tasks, the timing and especially the phrasing.

Here’s an excerpt on the Usability Testing tips that I compiled for the class.  In a strange coincedence, I was cleaning out some old files that were lurking about on my server and came across one of my “UX resources” files from 10+ years ago, which had a usability pdf I must have found on the Information & Design site a long ago (thanks guys for having such helpful resources up even back then!).  Some of the tips I’ve included date back to this document. 


Interested in the User Experience course I’m teaching? Here are more posts:

>The First Class

>The Second Class

>The Third Class

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