Usability testing is an excellent training tool

Jared Spool

February 23rd, 2007

In a recent coaching session, the client shared his frustration about how his team was completely unaware of who their users were and what they were trying to do his application. They’d been very successful selling seats, but were getting a ton of complaints about the design’s complexity. At the same time, they had this nagging feeling that many of the most impressive features of the application were going unused.

His initial solution was to hire a consultant to run some usability tests, gather the essential information, write a report, and present it back to the team.

I had a different idea: I suggested we train the development team to do their own testing. In my 28 years of experience of doing this work, I’ve found there is no single experience more educational than conducting usability tests.

Sitting next to a real user while they do real work is always an enlightening experience. I have yet to sit in on a test where I don’t learn something, even if what I learn is we’ve done a good job at nailing the design to meet the user’s needs. I learn the words the user’s like to use, the way they like to approach the problem, and where the design succeeds and fails at helping them.

Watching 10 real users is always an eye opener. Seeing patterns become enlightening. Seeing what doesn’t happen is just as useful. (“Look, none of the 10 users showed any interest in that fancy widget we spent so much time on!”)

Once you have a little training, conducting tests are fairly simple and straight forward. (As I say often, usability testing is not rocket science. We know this because NASA is one of our clients and they are very specific as to what they call rocket science. This is not it.)

Plus, once testing is embedded into the team’s regular process, it becomes a great way to try out new ideas and collect some actual data, instead of the usual opinion wars. There’s nothing like having a test scheduled and closing off an endless design debate with “Let’s see what the users say on Wednesday.”

I’ve seen a lot written about usability testing over the years, but I can’t recall seeing anyone talk specifically about it’s value as a training tool, to bring the entire team on the same page about who the users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Stretch your thinking of usability testing as a design validation tool or an idea generator into a team education technique. You won’t regret it.

3 Responses to “Usability testing is an excellent training tool”

  1. Adrian Howard Says:

    Yes! Although I wouldn’t describe it as training. It’s communication. I do this sort of thing all of the time. I find it much more effective for the development team to have direct experience in usability issues – including testing.

  2. Greg Scowen Says:

    The benefits of having development staff learn the skills (minimal as they are) to conduct usabilty testing in house can not be underestimated. The are immense.

    While I agree with you Adrian, that this is communication, I cannot agree that it can’t be described as training.

    When a developer, no… a coder, the guy in the black t-shirt with the wall of Coke cans by his window, gets introduced to a real-life user for the first time, this is training.
    That coder undergoes training in what a user is, how a user might think, how different a user is to himself.

    I have seen many coders, testers, analyts, designers, engineers, and management get bowled over by the difference in their opinions to their users. Practices like this are brilliant and need to be promoted more througout the industry.

    Nice post Jared. I will add this to my list of Blogs to follow.

  3. Kenneth Downs Says:

    Have to agree that contact with the customer determines a lot about the usability of a project.

    It would be great to get all programmers to meet with customers, but this could be a Customer Service disaster if the programmers aren’t trained first. Sad to say, they’d have to be trained, perhaps with electric shock, to keep their mouths shut when somebody says something they disagree with. No interruptions, no objections, just LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN!

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