Usability testing techniques are varied, especially when it comes to testing for software or web designs. On top of this, the line between those two concepts is blurring quite significantly these days due to the mobile and SaaS revolutions that are still underway as we speak. All this mess has led to some polarizing debate over what techniques should be employed among some, and among others, it has led to throwing up of arms and a huff of pure consternation.
That’s understandable. Until recently, testing usability, stability and other attributes of software or other digital constructs has been somewhat proprietary within a given company or team, with no real industry-wide standards. With the centralism of the internet and the exchange of experiences that comes with this, many usability techniques being pushed as potential industry standards began their lives as these proprietary in-house approaches.
The fact of the matter is, no one technique should preempt others, and no singular approach should be the only one used entirely. What I want to propose is that at different stages of the development, a series of techniques be employed, each appropriate to the phase in question. I’ll point out three today, but there is more than enough room for a lot more in between them and alongside them, so don’t hesitate to look at other techniques out there and see if they fit alongside this process to further enhance usability testing as a whole.
#1 – The Conceptual Phase and Paper Prototyping
One of the things I liked about the controversial Undercover UX book was its apologia for paper prototyping in UX and usability. It argued in favor of this due to its ease of adoption by those skeptical of user experience and usability as discrete sciences. However, its context being a little off doesn’t diminish this approach’s weight as a good technique.
Working out the layout, order of navigation and set of steps for an interface on paper before putting down any code or drawing any controls saves a lot of time and frustration, and gives the designers a much clearer, big picture view when they do go to design.
#2 – The Implementation Phase and the Campfire Technique
This probably has a lot of names, but I always called it the campfire approach, because the designers, testers and programmers follow the tradition of pass-it-along storytelling that got its roots around campfires in the days of yore.
Having worked out the initial big picture with paper prototyping, now, different people tell stories of users wanting to accomplish different feats with the design that has been come up with. As they work through this hypothetical scenario, they will identify potential confusion, inefficiency or downright broken design concepts that would not have been obvious on paper.
This should happen during the initial construction of the interface.
#3 – The Beta and Candidate Phases and the Massively Parallel User Testing
So you’ve worked out a concept on paper, and while implementing it, you’ve talked at length through storytelling, the act of using this, and identified a lot of problems. Now, you’ve implemented this big picture, with the initial bug fixes you discovered during your powwow, and you’re ready to test the construct.
Now, you have a lot of testers (not part of the team) performing the tasks you discussed during your storytelling, and have them log, in a standard form, any issues, questions or disapprovals they have of their experience. This is the most standard and time-tested of these three usability testing techniques, and it is here, near the end of testing, that it should be implemented.