Usability Testing Techniques

Elyse Sanchez

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

Too often, usability testing is judged to be a “nice-to-have,” but dispensable within the time and budget constraints of a full design and development project. This activity is often incorrectly perceived as being solely a formalized study that is time and labor intensive, with the potential to threaten the timeline and swell the budget. This is especially the case with the increasing dominance of Agile development methodologies, in which usability testing is thought to be a hindrance to the rapid iterative process. However, there are many methods to elicit user feedback, both during development and pre-release. Here are the pros and cons of a few:

1. Formal study: usually performed in a usability lab, led by a facilitator paired with an observer/ note taker 

Pros: Comprehensive observation of participant actions and behaviors due to audio and video monitoring. Usually, optimal testing hardware (possibly, a variety of computers) Ability for stakeholders to observe the assessment and directly hear the comments.

Cons: Costly. Participants must be local and qualified candidates may be difficult to recruit. Participants may be intimidated by the setting, which may not duplicate authentic conditions of use. Does not integrate well into the Agile process.

2. Mobile testing: Takes testing on the road. Usability specialists, equipped with laptop-based evaluation software, travel to the participants to conduct the study

Pros: Allows for assessment within the participants’ usual environment (e.g., office). Especially useful if many participants are located in the same facility or vicinity.

Cons: Opportunities for observation are limited: all findings must be filtered through the UXD team and the video artifacts they construct. Testing must take place on the team’s laptop.

3. Remote testing: Using a screen sharing application such as WebEx, subjects participate in the test from their individual locations.

Pros: Low cost. No need for UXD team or participants to travel to a common location, affording the potential for geographically disperse participants to contribute to the study. Observers can log into the session and observe silently. Usually, it does not interrupt the Agile process.

Cons: Webcam provides limited visual observation. Body language cues are mostly lost. Can sometimes be difficult for facilitator and subject to establish rapport.

4. “Hallway” testing: Participants consist of internal stakeholders or a very small number of external participants.

Pros: Quick and casual, works well with low-fidelity paper prototypes, yields immediate feedback. No elaborate test script is required. Can be performed by usability specialist or others on the project team. An excellent way for Agile developers to gain immediate user feedback.

Cons: Participants may not have the characteristics of the true end-users of the product.

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