What is a Usability Study?

Instructor: David Delony

David is a freelance writer specializing in technology. He holds a BA in communication.

In this lesson, you'll learn about what a usability study is and how it can improve the design of software. This lesson covers hallway testing, in-office and remote usability testing, and A/B testing.

Defining a usability study

Ever since the 1980s, there's been a trend toward user-focused software. Web designers, app developers and desktop software writers strive to make their interfaces easier to use by people who aren't computer experts. Out with the command line, in with graphical user interfaces and mobile devices.

Usability testing is accomplished by getting typical users of a product to try and complete tasks associated with normal use. While they do this, they will be observed and notes are taken for review. At the end of the test problems with using the product should become obvious, and the testers can also try to gauge satisfaction by interviewing the participants.

Usability studies are important to modern app development because if customers find apps too difficult to use, they'll simply go to a competitor who has put some thought into usability. It takes little effort for someone to navigate to a different website or install a different app.

Using some relatively simple methods, any software developer can catch potential issues before they reach the general public.

Let's follow a fictional social media site, FaceSpace, as they test their website and prepare to make changes.

Hallway testing

One common method of usability testing is the hallway test. It's exactly what it sounds like: the testers pull random people in a public area, preferably a high-traffic area like a shopping mall, and ask them to use an app while thinking out loud about what they're doing.

That's exactly what FaceSpace is doing. They went out to a large park outside their Bay Area headquarters during the lunch hour armed with some smartphones, and asked willing participants to use the mobile version.

The advantage of this test is that it's relatively informal and random people might be more representative of the potential userbase than using engineers who might be too close to the project. This goes for usability testing in general.

Usability studies

The problem with hallway testing is that you have to find people willing to participate in a test. Tracking down subjects can consume a lot of time and you're limited to one area. Formal usability testing is one alternative.

It's fairly straightforward to conduct a usability test. All you have to do is invite some people in and have them work through a task. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen contends that you only need five users at a time, with the caveat that you have to repeat the tests as you make changes to an app based on the feedback of previous studies.

With advances in screencasting and remote meeting software, conducting usability tests online is more feasible. A company conducting usability tests might post on a site like Craigslist advertising for testers. Having some sort of compensation for the testing might motivate more people to respond.

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