September 25, 2012

Usability Testing Explained – An Introduction

Usability is one of those hard-to-quantify terms because we all have our own thoughts as to what it actually means for something to be usable and ‘user friendly’. For the most part, we can only identify usability when we observe it, however, for a product or website which is used or seen millions of times, usability is an essential factor to consider if you want to provide a quality experience.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is an umbrella term for the methods we use when measuring the quality of a user’s experience during their interaction with a product or system such as a website or software application.

Usability testing works best when it is conducted throughout a product development cycle so as to capture direct user feedback on the ease of use and satisfaction with the product. This ensures that the product meets users’ needs and business objectives.

Within the field of usability testing, there has been a marked shift from traditional ‘Old School’ product usability testing to a more advanced ‘New School’ of user experience testing. The older way was mostly focused on basic learnability, efficiency, and error prevention while the ‘New School’ strives to cover a much broader range of factors that evaluate the quality of the user experience as well as the effective communication with the user.

The difference lies mainly in the different questions the two schools of usability ask of the user and the product.

The ‘Old School’ would ask “Can users quickly and easily learn how to use the site?”, “How well can users complete primary, routine tasks?” and “How frequently do users encounter errors? How can the site design be improved to eliminate common and serious errors?”, while the ‘New School’ asks “Does the site enable exploration by letting users initiate and control actions based on their primary objectives?” and “Does the site incorporate graphic elements and visual cues to build a connection and guide users through the site?

Other common areas which are questioned and analysed in Usability Testing include the consistency of the product, and whether the layout helps to orient users, feedback and whether the user is clearly informed of task progression and the product’s simplicity and if the site is presented in an intuitive manner and is easy to digest.

It is important to consider all the above factors when conducting usability testing, because customer experience is not only about how easy the site is to use, but also about how well the site delivers on customer expectations and drives call-to-action.

According to usability veteran Jakob Nielsen, you only need to test with 5 users to discover 85% of the problems on your site. Admittedly, this is true when the focus of your research is focused on learnabilty, efficiency and error prevention.

The 5 user maxim does not apply to testing situations such as comparing two products or when trying to get precise measurements of task times or completion rates but to discovering any problems users might have with an interface.

However, if your usability testing is aimed at being more strategic and focused on calls-to-action, customer experience benchmarking, or measuring the ROI from your online initiatives, it is paramount to test with a larger sample of users to have statistically reliable metrics.

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