Usability Testing, K.I.S.S.

Usability Testing. Ask anyone in our industry and they will agree it’s an important phase in web development. Most will also agree that it can be confusing, expensive and a bit intimidating. It doesn’t have to be! Usability testing can be done in as little as a few days with as little as a couple hundred dollars. As long as you follow one of life’s golden rules…K.I.S.S.

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

Not us!

No, not the rock band that have rocked your pocketbooks for 37 years. The K.I.S.S. I’m talking about is: Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. My graphic design mentor taught me that long ago and it has served me well on several occasions.

Heres how to apply K.I.S.S. to usability testing.

1) Define your goals for the site.
Think about why you have a site in the first place. What do users need to accomplish when they visit your site? What are the critical pieces of information? Ask your front-line employees what the customers are calling in and asking for that they can’t find on your current website.
Be realistic! Sure, your mission statement is important… to your company. I’d bet you dollars to donuts no one, except maybe potential employees, comes to your website to read your mission statement. When you place more importance on internal policies than actual content, the user experience suffers. I degrees, that topic is for another post. Lets get back to business.

2) Create tasks based on your defined goals. These tasks are going to be what you ask your test users to perform. For example, when we did usability testing for the OU campus calendar, we identified a goal to be “Find a specific event and print it.” From that, we created a real scenario using real content on the calendar. The final task was “You know there is a Women’s soccer game vs. Baylor on September 26th. Find out what time the match begins and print out the details.”

3) Invite users to participate. You don’t need many, five will do for the first round. Useit.com has a great article about iterative testing. You will need a laptop (preferably a Mac, ill explain why later) and a room without distractions. I like to schedule my tests about 45 minutes apart. Give yourself a little buffer in case someone is late or takes a while to complete the testing.
For OU it is pretty easy. Being on campus, our audience is within arms reach. It usually only takes a status update on our Facebook page and within 20 minutes we have our slots filled. If you are having a hard time recruiting participants, try giving away an incentive. Its amazing what a $50 iPod shuffle can do to recruit participants.
Now I realize not everyone has such a passionate fan base as The University of Oklahoma, but remember K.I.S.S. Ideally you would like your participants to match up exactly with your target audience but in reality anyone can participate. As long as a person has not seen, or used the site they can be a tester. Get creative. Ask people in different departments, ask colleges, ask your neighbor, ask your family. Grandmothers (Nanas) are the absolute best testers, if they can use your site you know you’ve done good work!

4) Execute the testing. By now you have the tasks and participants. For each user, format a document with each task and a little space underneath the tasks to take notes. You can include a few general warm up questions such as “What are your first impressions of the site?”  “what don’t you like about the site?” etc. These questions give you a chance to collect some general feedback about your site. Include an introduction script, so that you can explain the process to each tester. Read from the script each time to ensure each tester is getting the exact same information. You should also include a post-test questionnaire. Let the participant fill this out on their own. This gives them an opportunity to reflect on certain areas of the site and share their thoughts with you. The documentation for usability can be tricky but luckily OU Web Comm is here to hook you up! Use that as a start and create your own.

Now, an important part of usability testing is to record each test, audio & video. This is invaluable not only for reviewing and taking notes while creating the report, but also for credibility. Now you have indisputable evidence that your users cannot easily find how to pay their bill because your mission statement dominates every other piece of content on your home page. So the person that asked for your mission statement to be front and center in 32 point, red, bold, Times New Roman can see that might not have been the best design decision. Silverback is a great solution for recording your usability testing, you can export each individual session as a quicktime movie and it even tracks and displays mouse clicks. Unfortunately for PC users, Silverback is only available for Mac.

5) Report out. Armed with your notes and recorded sessions, create a report that lists each task as well as how users interacted with the site. It is important to take note of facial features, like the look of confusion, a smile, even a laugh! Note the steps the users took to complete, or not complete each task. Look for trends. After a few tests, you will uncover problem areas. After you have identified problem areas, make suggestions and meet with your team to discuss possible solutions. Its important to make a plan of action. Nothing is more frustrating than identifying problems through usability testing and then doing nothing about it. So make sure your team is on board and are willing to make the changes. Take a look at the OU campus calendar usability report for an example. In OU Web Communications we have made usability testing a key component to our highest level projects. It is built into the project timeline.

6) Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Usability testing is not a one time thing. Uncovering, addressing and implementing fixes for one usability issue could cause issues elsewhere. It could take a couple tests to uncover other problems. Also, proposed changes to improve usability sound like a good idea, but then could fall flat upon implementation. Its important to test up to three times over several different versions to really find and address problem areas within the site.

Thats it! This might sound like a lot, but once you have put it into action you will see how easy it can be. Keep in mind, it takes some time, so be sure you are ready to block out around a week of your time for the first test. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. Also, give me a shout if you have questions about our usability testing and documentation.

If you’re scoffing right now at all this information or if you simply do not have the time or resources to devote to in-house usability testing there are hundreds of research companies that specialize in usability testing. Our good friend Kevin Jessop heads up Evolve Research here in Oklahoma City, and I’m sure he would be glad to help make your site so user friendly, your Nana could use it!

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