Encouraging Usability Tests

The user’s actions and remarks are great

I think usability testing has become a bit of an ordinary topic that everyone is well aware of, but I’d still like to write about my recent efforts.

Within the various processes and methods that conform the HCD (Human-Centered Design), user interaction interviews and usability tests are among those that have the greatest impact on a client’s consciousness.

When performing these tests, clients and stakeholders observing will almost always end up leaving satisfied with the results. However, from time to time some of them will be left feeling depressed and sometimes even in shock from results they weren’t expecting at all. Interestingly enough, the impact of these remarks wouldn’t be nearly as strong if they were coming directly from us, instead, when the user is the one making them the client will accept them wholeheartedly.

Information that can be obtained from general users is immensely useful, but what I hope for the most is that after a client’s visit, future discussions will be made being more aware of the existence of “the user”. This effect in particular is something that I think is impossible to obtain without properly spending time and money, and even though I’m aware that these two resources are especially rigid for business, and that I also can’t say usability tests are absolutely necessary in all circumstances, I still think they are almost always worth considering.

Try it in a workshop

I’m usually given the time and budget to carry out usability tests, but this isn’t always the case. Thinking it would be a good idea to be able to perform the usability tests in a less restrictive manner, I decided to start a usability workshop within the company.

Fortunately, participants seem to enjoy themselves. I can’t help but think about the time I carried out my first usability test 18 years ago. I remember that a special usability unit was created inside the company, and that I was suddenly transferred there. I had to study desperately and couldn’t distinguish left from right. Back then there wasn’t much information on usability testing to begin with; since the term “usability” wasn’t very well understood by other people inside the company, it was also very hard to find volunteers willing to cooperate; preparing the products to test was also quite complicated. In other words, most of the memories I have are about the hardships I had to endure. In retrospect, I am a bit envious of my current self seeing how much fun I am having enjoying the workshop right now. I really hope “learning while having fun” is something that can take root in our culture.

Try it without worrying too much about the details

When actually doing usability tests, at the time they take place or during the analysis after they’ve concluded, more often than not you’ll end up thinking “Ah! I should have done this differently”. In my case, whenever there is something I don’t understand or something I’m unsure about, I try reading about it in books as well as participating in seminars here and there. At the very least I’ve learnt a lot just by pure trial an error. By the time I started feeling that the information I was getting was somewhat familiar I realized I was also carrying out the usability tests much more properly.

Even after studying and understanding about it, when you actually try testing you realize how important the actual design of the test really is. Furthermore, thinking about properly planning the test will contribute in having a better understanding on the concept and the target of the products we are trying to test. Although I knew about HCD (I used to call it UCD, User Centered Design), at the time I was doing usability tests without being conscious about them. All I was doing was trying to make things easier to use. As I kept repeating this process I eventually became aware of the greater picture, and that’s when I began to think that HCD was really important.

As a side note, HCD and UCD differ strictly speaking. However, the actual definition of the word doesn’t really matter. I’m also not very interested in arguing about which one is correct. I think that people who get fixated in this kind of discussion also tend to get stuck in the theoretical side of things without experiencing their practical side. Rather than arguing about what HCD or UCD are supposed to be used for, I prefer spending my time doing something else.

Failure is a valuable experience

Even though the things we teach at the workshop are somewhat basic, we place a big emphasis on having participants experience the flow of usability testing by letting them think about the tasks, conducting the tests, and summarizing the problems they encounter. This being a workshop means that the available time is limited, but there are still many things that can be learnt just by looking back at the experience and reflecting on the things that didn’t work as expected. At the moment we are trying to introduce the workshop to others as a beginner’s class, but I think that once we reach an intermediate level, we will create a place for skill improvement with concrete demonstrations.

”成功” の反対は挑戦しないこと。(The opposite of “success” is to not even try.)

The first step is trying. Everyone has a first time, there isn’t such a thing as perfect from the beginning. We only need to capitalize on what we failed at before. Our goal is not to do tests but to improve our services, so doing a few “lacking” tests is way better than not doing any at all. Studying in advance is important but rather than you being cautious and hesitant about testing, simply trying and failing, and after that figuring out yourself what went wrong by consulting books and attending seminars is an overwhelmingly more valuable experience.

Usability tests aren’t only for improving the quality of your service, they also make you change the way you look at it. I really hope that those of you that haven’t done usability tests before can at least give them a try.