From the dev floor: key lessons in effective usability testing

Emily Maginess
By Emily Maginess under Agile, Engineering 18 July 2013

When an app’s design is novel or unexpected, the process for testing whether it can be used without introduction becomes critical. Fortunately an often overlooked discipline can help. By simply observing how ‘real’ users use the product, a robust usability testing process allows app developers to answer some of their biggest concerns before a product reaches real customers’ hands.

At The App Business we deliver products that create unique and ownable experiences for brands. Effective usability testing is critical for success and cracking that process is something we’re continually striving to master. Drawing on our own experience and the approach of Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think, we’ve trialled and optimised various product testing methods. Here are two key learnings for effective usability testing.

1. Begin Usability Testing earlier in the process.

Usability testing is often tacked on to the end of the main development work stream. This is mainly due to the inflated expectations of its resource requirements. “We don’t have time/money/space to do it yet!” is the typical excuse. The truth is usability testing is most beneficial when the development team takes ownership for it and starts it as early as possible.

Embedding usability testing in the process early on allows the development team to step outside their bubble, where assumptions and accumulated knowledge often fill in the blanks. By identifying fixes, implementing them early, and retesting the update, the benefits for the final product can be enormous. The key is to shorten the timeframe between each stage from fix to implementation and test cycle.

2. Don’t overcomplicate Usability Testing.

The development team does not need testing environments, two way mirrors or even recording equipment. Simply asking someone who is unfamiliar with the app to perform a set of actions, and watching their steps and mis-steps really is enough to understand where the wider public are likely to get tripped up.

The feedback can be unsettling for the team, but in our experience patterns emerge surprisingly quickly. Fixes can range from something as simple as changing an icon or tweaking the instructional copy, to more fundamental changes such as how a screen is displayed and how the information within it is organised.

Approaching usability in this way allows the team to resolve UI debates quickly. Anyone involved in software development will have sat in meetings with at least 2 routes to choose from and a 50/50 split on the preferred course of action. Early, embedded usability testing provides a means for the team to test these options and decide – based on feedback and expertise – the best approach. This validation gives the team freedom to be far more creative with the applications they develop.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that how apps look and behave will continue to evolve, presenting new opportunities and challenges for application developers. As smartphones become more ubiquitous and we step into a world of wearable computing, it is easy to see that in many ways we are just getting started. That’s what makes this industry so exciting. What’s important for developers is to have a process in place to make sure basic usability is not left behind.

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