The purpose of usability testing

Usability testing is no longer treated as just something that needs to be done at the end of website or application development. It is now an important element that is present, at least to some degree, throughout the development cycle.
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Most people now realize that usability testing is not only an effective and accurate way of answering performance questions, it can also answer questions regarding the way end users interface with the website or software under test. This is vitally important as the way in which users interface with software often determines the marketability of that software and poor website design can result in lower sales and damage to the reputation of a company. Usability testing offers the opportunity to discover how well a website or application achieves its goals. It can provide insight into such things as navigation, business processes and user behavior, as well as answer a large number of other questions.

There are many ways to find the answers you need, it all depends on how you ask the questions, and different methods can reveal different information. Here are a few of the usability testing methods and the kind of information they reveal, along with their advantages and disadvantages.

 

1. Direct Observation

Sometimes referred to as Contextual Analysis or Contextual Inquiry, this method consists of directly observing the user in the actual environment in which the user operates, in other words, "in context." The user is directly observed using the website or software in question. Observation is then followed up by interviewing the user in a one on one setting in order to answer questions the researcher may have.

Purpose: The purpose of this method is to clarify how the user interacts with the website or software to make certain that the item under test matches user requirements.

Advantage: This method can give the researcher insight into how the user pursues his or her goals through interaction with the website or application, as well as indicate any area where the item under test may not be performing well in a real world environment.

Disadvantage: This method is particularly susceptible to interference from the researcher. The temptation may be to try to guide the user in an attempt to "improve" the user's workflow. This should be avoided. Direct observation should be a generally passive process.

 

2. Card Sorting

This is a useful psychological tool that is best administered during the development stage. Its purpose is to determine how users categorize the information that will be present in the application or on the website. Users are given a set of cards with relevant information on them and asked to sort the cards in a way that makes sense to them. A variation of this test is where users are given categories and asked to sort the cards by category.

Purpose: To match user requirements as closely as possible during the development cycle.

Advantage: This is very good for developing information architecture for a website or application.

Disadvantage: The results are limited to what those who develop the test think is important, so things can get missed.

 

3. Usability Audit

This is the evaluation of user interface based on the rules developed by Jakob Nielsen in the 1990's and which have been added to and modified since. They include asking the following questions, all of which should be answered with " yes."

Does the system keep the user informed regarding system operations?

Does the system present information in a natural, understandable and logical order?

Does the system follow established platform conventions?

Does the system provide the user with a way of correcting mistakes that does not require extended dialogue or interaction?  In other words, does it support undo and redo?

Is the system designed to minimize user error?

Is the system flexible and efficient?

Is the system designed to present information in an easy to understand way?

Are error messages clear and easy to understand?  Do they present the problem accurately and offer possible solutions?

Does the system lighten the load on the user by not requiring heavily detailed actions?

Are system instructions easily visible and easy to retrieve when needed?

Is the user required to do more actions than should be logically necessary to accomplish a task?

Are help and documentation functions available when needed?

Purpose: To create an interface that enables users to easily understand their options and intuitively know how to work with the system to achieve their goals. Usability audit ensures that the system serves the user and not the other way around.

All of the above questions are based on certain interface design principles and there is really no disadvantage or downside to following established principles, since they are fundamental to all websites and applications.  They have been hard learned over a period of years.  One need only go back to the overblown websites of the 1990s to understand how far interface design has come.  The gaudy animation packed websites of that era often set the record for confusion and generally poor usability.

 

These days, designers are dedicated to bringing users all the tools and data needed for every step of a given process, and to do so in a way that's easy to understand and use.  This is why designs are user tested for functionality even after aesthetic changes.  Impressing the user with pizzazz is no longer important.  What matters is helping the user to make his or her own decisions and get the job done.

The modern website or application is designed to perform the most work possible while demanding the least information necessary. This can get tricky, as applications can sometimes be too helpful, slowing the user down by rendering assistance by performing a function that the user didn't ask for or want. The user is then forced to deal with the results of the unwanted assistance before returning to task.

Ultimately, good interface is a matter of balance. Failing to anticipate the user's needs can also have considerable repercussions for websites and applications.  You should never force a user to go hunting for information or for tools.  A quality interface will render any assistance possible and provide what the user will need to accomplish any task, without taking control away from the user.

 

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