Process Blog 3- Usability Testing

Usability testing is an important part of designing a product; even the most functional systems are frustrating if the end user can’t intuitively use it. As an exercise in understanding usability experiments, we decided to put an Emerson 1000w microwave to the test.

The microwave used in our usability tests (Emerson 1000W)

First, we designed the tasks the user would have to perform (Microwaving popcorn, cleaning, and adjusting the clock in the dark) and the data points we would collect (Time taken, number of steps, and frustration level).

Designing our user tests in studio

We chose these tests and data points because we thought they were representative of typical use cases and the problems that could come about from them (for example, number steps it takes to adjust the clock in the dark because microwaves are often used at night, and number of mis-pressed buttons or “steps” shows the problem with the design clearly). We also created scripts for the moderator, to ensure each participant was given equivalent and effective instructions. We did this in order to better understand how to conduct a neutral, objective usability test, a skill which is an important step in making a functional design. Usability is the door through which a user must pass to get to the functionality of the product, and if it’s flawed, the consequences can be frustration, as seen with this microwave, but can also be more severe (think of the results of unusable medical equipment, for example).

Here’s the full breakdown of the tests we did and the results:

So What?

This project provoked a couple of questions for me, especially about the standards for usability tests in the real world. How is it that hundreds of thousands of dollars can go into producing a microwave that has obviously flawed features, like the popcorn button? Not just microwaves, either; seemingly every day I run into a mass-produced, supposedly carefully thought out product with obvious design issues. Are the standards for usability for real products different? Do the companies not care? Or am I just not the target user?

Now What?

Actually measuring, empirically, the usability of the product so that users can use it seems like a process applicable to just about every product with an interface. I would say its especially important for devices like, say, a square reader that must be intuitive and quick even for first-time customers. There may need to be less intense user testing for products used by professionals and specialists such as video-effects software that will only ever be used by professionals, where features will inherently require lots of documentation and can only be applied in specific ways. In this case, its important to arrange things logically but the end user will inevitably spend weeks or months mastering the software anyways. That being said, I could see this technique being used in some professional equipment, such as medical gear or military gear that may need to be used by trained people in high-stress, high-stakes situations, where instinct may take over.

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