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.Tweet