The Case for Iterative Usability Testing

Article, Michael Schwartz No Comments

Michael Schwartz | January 25, 2013

Imagine you’re trying out a new recipe for a sauce. The tomatoes and onions have been chopped and added, the fresh basil and thyme mixed in, and the mixture simmers on the stove. You’re left with nothing to do for several hours except clean up and maybe work on that bottle of Pinot Noir sitting on the counter. The kitchen smells great, but will your palate agree with your nose? Do you try a taste now or wait another three hours until the sauce is done and ready for consumption?

Of course, you try the sauce now and flavor it to your preferences. This is similar to iterative usability testing. Usability is how easy and intuitive (or not) an object is to use and learn to use. The object can be a tool, vehicle, consumer electronic, website, or software application. Have you ever become frustrated while having a difficult time using a product or navigating a website? Usability, if done well, is rarely noticed. You probably haven’t forgotten the frustration of using a bad product and have avoided using the product ever since. Common sense dictates that if companies want to make desirable products then they should engage in usability testing and many companies do. The enemy to usability, however, is cost. In order to save money, some companies engage in usability testing at the end of a product’s development cycle and sometimes not at all. This would be similar to not tasting your sauce until it’s in the finished recipe and sitting on the table in front of your dinner guests.

Usability testing by itself is not enough. Instead of one round of usability testing, the process must be iterative and universal throughout the design and development cycle of a product. Testing your sauce is very inexpensive but more product testing means more money spent on testing; however, some usability experts argue that iterative usability testing doesn’t need to be expensive. In Don’t Make Me Think!, Steve Krug argues that unless your product is only being used by usability experts, then you’re wasting your money. Any person who can reasonably be expected to use your product, and is probably a member of the intended consumer base anyway, will do. The testing can be done inexpensively and in a short time period, about as long as it takes to make that sauce. How much would you charge to test out Samsung’s newest smartphone prototype or the latest version of the Xbox console (aka, “Durango” or is it “720”)? How long do you think it would take you to notice whether or not using the product is a frustrating experience?

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