Usability testing, when should it be carried out

I was involved in an interesting conversation a few day’s ago around usability testing and when it should be carried out or indeed if it should be carried out.

 Firstly, I firmly believe usability testing should be carried out, and as early on in the project as possible. It’s a key activity in ensuring your product/site makes sense to end users and that the features delivered will actually be used.

I was recently at a presentation where a figure of 20% was quoted as being the percentage of features always or often used within a product/site.  Think about the number of features within word or excel that you use, and you will probably agree that this percentage is spot on. Now think about the amount of money spent developing the remaining 80%, with 1/2 of these never being used.

To answer the ‘how often’, we need to look at the purpose of usability testing. Usability testing is a sanity check to ensure what your are developing is in tune with users, and will help project sponsors etc make more informed decisions.  On scrum based projects you can carry this out every sprint or every other sprint, depending on the amount of functionality delivered during a sprint.

Now you’re probably thinking she’s mad we could never afford this, but it need not cost you the earth as there are many things you can do yourself

  • You don’t need fancy facilities.  Any room or area set up with a desk, a couple of chairs  and a computer/laptop will do
  • It’s easy and straight forward.  Anybody can carry out usability testing you don’t need to hire in experts to assist.  You simply decide what areas of the application you want to concentrate in and come up with a list of questions / tasks.  With scrum it will be the areas you have been working on in the previous sprint or sprints.
  • You will need 3 – 4 users, after about the 3rd user you will start to get a feel for the significant problems
  • Ideally you want a representation of the actual end users, but you don’t necessarily need to ensure this each and every time.  I’ve approached people on customer sites who are not linked to the immediate project team, and have gotten some very interesting feedback this way as they aren’t ‘living and breathing the project’ and therefore can highlight areas which the project team would never have thought about. But you should at least for one round of testing ensure there there are two people for each of the end user personas

So when do I normally start usability testing,  usually as soon as I have a UI design to see if users get the basic concept and purpose for the product / site.  This way you can ensure what is being developed actually has meaning.

Usability testing is highly rewarding and I always find that the team gets refocused after each round.  There is a sense of achievement as they watch users easily navigate through there tasks, and also some moments of clarity as users give feedback on certain aspects of the product/site which the team have been pondering about.


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