Sunday, July 19, 2009

usability testing

So, here I am again, with another post and hoping for some responses.

One of the biggest areas of concern is usability testing. When I talk to clients and potential clients, I am often told that it is not necessary. The reasons are many from budget TO our sales force knows what the clients are looking for TO customer service will tell us and more. Unfortunately, this information is generally not complete nor accurate. This is because either people are making assumptions or the wrong questions are being asked.

The reality is that unless testing is done (and retesting) you really don’t know how people perceive and use information. And then there is the type of testing – do you use focus groups, one-on-ones, etc. For statements, we use one-on-ones because statements are very personal and are generally used by individuals. This gives us a more realistic situation and allows us to ask pointed questions about the information contained in the document.

To this day, I am still surprised by the some of answers we get!

One time I did testing on an auto insurance policy. First we tested the existing policy package which contained about 30 individual pages and asked people to open and review the materials. One individual removed the pages and organized then in neat piles by category. I thought to myself – this person actually reads this stuff! When we started asking specific questions it turned out he had no clue what we were asking and where to find the information.

I take a lead from David Sless of Communications Research Institute (CRI) and talk testing, testing, and testing. Although this is very important part of information design, most clients don’t understand its value or how to conduct the testing to ensure the greatest value. I have found the statement usability testing is treated much like marketing testing. That is, people are asked which one they “like” and other subjective questions that don’t get to the root of understanding the document and the information contained in it.

If more companies tested their documents, they would be more successful and errors would be reduced, time would be saved internally, money would be saved in production and the customer base would have a more positive view of the organization.


  1. Usability testing is also a major component of software development. The idea, as with information design, is to ensure that the user understands how to use the interface, enter data, interpret and respond properly to error messages (parallel to instructions on paper forms), and obtain the information he or she wants. An additional objective is to ensure that the user can navigate the software easily. This objective is more more difficult to achieve with paper documents, which unlike software, cannot notice when a user is floundering and cannot adjust its instructions accordingly. Software developers often use one-way mirrors to record facial expressions while testing software records the keystrokes and mouse movements/clicks.

  2. Working as an information designer for many years I know just what Robert is talking about when it comes to convincing clients that UT is necessary if they are really interested in providing services that work for their customers.

    In recent years I have worked and researched increasingly in the area of accessibility for people with mobility, sensory or cognitive impairments, and - lo and behold - when viewed from this perspective, clients suddenly understand that it might be necessary to look at the usability of their products.

    The legal requirement for accessibility does play role in this change of heart and it serves as a convenient handle into the discussion about usability. Just like the increasing awareness of an ageing society and the market volumes attached to this development has given a real boost to the argument for accessibility.

    This has shifted the perception of UT away from just being a form of market testing. So I'm all in favour of constructive piggy-backing.