By Wendy Eichenbaum
“You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
Companies often have to resort to the sledgehammer when they don’t run usability tests. Several years ago, I ran a usability test for an international consumer electronics company. They were releasing a new TV & remote control in a few weeks. We tested the user experience of the remote control since it was so different from a traditional remote control. The new shape resembled a label maker with its thick square shape and QWERTY keyboard.
Unfortunately, the feedback was not good. Users had difficulty holding the remote and selecting the buttons, just to name a few issues. Several weeks later, the professional reviews reiterated the usability test report findings. I later found out that our usability test was the first one run on this new remote. The company no longer makes this model remote control.
The reviews were a wake-up call for the company. On the next remote control, they ran five usability tests in the US, and more worldwide. They were not going to make that costly mistake again. And now, many divisions of the company have teams dedicated to user research and usability testing.
But how can you test a product that doesn’t exist? You can show users paper or plastic prototypes of your design to find out how users would expect to complete a task. If your users are confused, revise the prototype and run the test again. And don’t stop after two tests. You want to continue testing throughout the design and development processes. Even if you can’t make changes for the upcoming release, you know what fixes are a priority for future versions.
Usability testing is not a long, complicated process. You don’t need the hundreds of responses required for statistically significant quantitative feedback. You only need 6-8 participants per test for qualitative feedback. That feedback will show you 80% of your issues, and most likely 99% of your major issues.
There are two keys to a successful usability test.
First, you must define your target audience and recruit participants who match the criteria of your audience. If you’re looking to design a product for the Millennial audience, then don’t test Baby Boomers. Their feedback will skew your results. Work closely with your marketing department and review your personas when you draft a list of recruiting requirements for your test participants.
Second, you must define the most important tasks. Tests should not run over an hour, or your users will lose focus. So in that limited amount of time, you want to cover the tasks that are most important or frequent for the customers.
Usability testing is not a nice-to-have option. It’s a necessity to ensure customer satisfaction. A few poor reviews on your hardware, software, or service are enough to send your customers and prospective customers running to your competitors.
About the Author
Wendy Eichenbaum is a UX professional with 24 years in the business. She began her career as a technical writer. She then earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, studying both writing and UI design. Over the years, she has worked across verticals, from start-ups to multi-national firms, in many areas of UX including research & strategy, Information Architecture, usability testing, and focus groups. She started her own UX consulting firm in 2008, Ucentric Design. And she is an adjunct professor at Cal State University, Fullerton. There she teaches a class that she created, User-Centered Design for Web and Mobile Interfaces.