Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Usability Test Participants - Choose Carefully

Some of you are aware that in addition to my work with PinPoint Performance Solutions I also run a business networking organization in the Boise area called Treasure Valley Consultants' Network that focuses on promoting the knowledge and expertise of area consultants. We held a meeting last night, which you can read more about at the TVCNet Blog, on the topic of search engine optimization. The discussion took a brief but interesting turn to usability testing of website.

A guest at the meeting mentioned that a usability test doesn't have to be complex. Just get some people together and ask them to go through the website while you observe. With all due respect to my guest, I would have to disagree with the comment to a certain extent. While it's true usability tests do not have to be complex, it really depends on the nature of the website, web application or software. By that I mean its intended end-user and the tasks it was designed to help the end-user accomplish.

If we're talking about website, for example, that is developed for information purposes then it's perfectly fine to recruit people that are easily accessible to you to be your test participants. They may or may not be the intended audience for your website, but if you are out to learn just basic information - what works with the website and what doesn't work - then you should be OK. On the other hand, if the website is linked to important business processes, functions, or perhaps safety, then you need to recruit actual end-users who are likely to be using the website.

Why is it important to find actual end-users if the product is linked to something vital? Actual end-users have a vested interest over those who are just casual observers. They are closely tied to the situation the product is intended for and have history and intrinsic knowledge as to what will work and what won't. Consider this: if you designed a new snow shovel, would you give it to a guy in Florida to test out?

I find that some developers take a path of least resistance when it comes to usability testing. They choose not to conduct them because they are thought of as too costly, too time consuming or yield little to no results. Perhaps they don't know what they are looking for during a usability test? It's a question I've wondered about for quite some time.

A challenge I face in my business is demonstrating the overall value of a usability test. The decision as to whether or not to conduct a usability test rests in what I feel is the critical nature of the product. If it is critical then I would recommend conducting a formalized test with actual end-users. If it is not, then it is perfectly fine to find people easily accessible to you, actual end-users or not.

Either way, conduct a usability test to measure the value and effectiveness of your application, be it website, web app or software. Just make sure your test participants have a vested interest in what they are testing. In the end you'll get better results.


Sarah Lewis said...

I'm not offended by your clarification. :)

I'm actually a big believer in real usability testing. What I was referring to was more the initial exploration of keywords, since many business owners find it almost impossible to describe their businesses in the same words a customer would use.

Of course, who you "grab" to do even that kind of testing depends on your intended audience... for many businesses, a "person off the street" works fine, but certainly not always.

I'm working with a client right now whose target audience is extremely knowledgeable in terms of industry jargon (and inclined to use it!), so for them, it's not adequate—even in the exploratory stage—to have a general audience doing the testing.

Anyways, I'm sorry if my off-the-cuff suggestion didn't come across as well as I intended; I'll try to be more clear in the future!

Justin Beller said...

No offense taken whatsoever. You know as well as I do when you're a blogger conversations and events that you encounter on a daily basis becomes good fodder for blog posts.

The discussion at the meeting got me thinking about selecting participants for usability tests. My comments may have been born out of frustration. As I mentioned in my post, my biggest challenge is convincing people that usability testing is a necessary step in design and development. Formal or informal, it's still important.

I think you have a good idea where I'm coming from and I have a good idea where you are coming from - especially when it comes to search engine optimization, an area you need to be familiar with in your line of work.

Again, no offense taken. Glad to have you as a participant in the discussion.