Important Usability Evaluation Methods

Trying to summarize all of the primarily used usability evaluation methods in one go is a daunting task as there are many evaluations that need to be performed. Usability is a difficult, complex and, in some ways, an abstract science within the field of digital interface and construct design. It takes a special kind of person and a special kind of mindset to really embrace this face and even more so, to have a love for it.

Be thankful that such people do exist.  Because without experts in usability and usability evaluation, we’d get a lot of software that could be well-programmed internally, but damn impossible to use because of poorly-planned interfaces, interaction issues and inefficient, ugly aesthetics.

Long time computer users may recall a time when GUI first became a standard technology; the resulting lack of standards and guidelines caused this sort of “all over the place” problem. Nobody knew how interacting with software worked. GUI made learning each new software design a journey; any experience gained from previous software designs had no effect on learning new ones. The same problem arose when the web became popular, with web designs being everywhere with no signs of standardization.

Well, with the refinement of usability guidelines, this problem was abated. Usability changes over time though, and it will always change. With the advent of new designs, new technologies and a shift in your users’ mindset- new usability guidelines will be developed.

So if you mastered usability principles in the past, guess what? You might be out of touch. I present three of the more modern, effective usability evaluation methods that work.

#1 – Testing

When it comes to testing, we’re going to go with recommending the thinking aloud protocol.

In the thinking aloud protocol, a group of testers will get together and talk aloud about how they might do one thing or another; they will openly discuss each step design that comes to mind. This helps to outline how users may be thinking at any given time, and outline how something may be misleading or confusing.

There are a lot of more mathematical and procedural methodologies for testing, but honestly, they ignore the significance of the human element, too much for my liking.

#2 – Inspection

Inspection is not the same as overall testing, and usually happens before a version enters candidacy for testing. During inspection, things like proper alignment, proper displaying, rendering and interconnection of elements within a design are closely checked for problems. This phase uses constructive criticism in order to improve usability.

There are a lot of approaches to inspection, and I’m going to recommend the pluralistic walkthrough. In pluralistic walkthrough, a number of users will be guided through the same series of procedures within the design, and with each step, they will make observations of the visuals. Data output will be recorded. This follows the “two heads are better than one” principle, in which flaws in the elements or designs may be spotted and then collectively discussed in order to create a better design.

#3 – Inquiry

Inquiry is the stage in which input from test users -regarding usability issues such as aesthetics, flow and navigation – come into play.  After all, the technical testing and inspection cannot account for an overall experience. This is generally the last step, but in many cases, this phase is performed intermittently on a smaller scale.

We’re going to recommend logging actual use – so you can analyze real, hard data. You should log video recordings, heat maps, interviews, surveys or any number of methods that will produce solid feedback on user experience. This data, focusing on the real use of a prototype, trumps internal guessing and hypothesizing any day.

Most companies use multiple, important usability evaluation methods to test out their products. I have outlined the three basic phases to get you started and keep you fresh :testing, inspection and inquiry. Good luck!

Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.