Usability testing – Is your great design actually making things worse?

16th April 2012
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user testing is based on good observation

Is your great design making things worse? Usability testing can help you find out. First, you need to know what is usability so you can make most effective use of the data you collect.

More on usability

Jakob Nielsen, usability expert, conducts regular testing of the latest devices and websites to tease out conclusions to help us all design more usable interactions. I am basing the following on his great post Usability 101: Introduction to Usability and my own experience.

Nielsen says the term ‘usability’ means

…a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.

Different design camps get different benefits from things like usability testing: Web designers get clearer instructions and reasons behind what they are designing which helps them design better; interaction designers get clear marching orders from usuability testing as to how an interface is used and how it can be improved. A developer can suggest the best way to accomplish the task if she knows that the end result needs to be and why.

Usability is not an objective term, it’s a subjective measure based on human psychology and behaviour. It’s clear and immediate benefit as a discipline, however, is that , once its principles are learned they can be applied to web and application design in a real and measureable way.

Any website or app can be improved over time and there’s no end to the process. This is a good thing and keeps things interesting. Research, design, build, test, rinse and repeat. As you incorporate usability into your design/dev practices, you’ll start to see it as a beneficial necessity as opposed to a detrimental, time-wasting requirement.

Do your users think your website or app is usable? Ask them and find out (user testing). It’s really that simple. No amount of learned analysis gets around the fact that if human beings hate using something, they just won’t use it because a more usable alternative waits around every corner. Key to improving usability is human input and testing and being open to change. Something usable is fun to use and makes you feel your time has been well spent.

Be open to flaws

User testing can help you expose flaws in your website or app. Follow these steps to find out more:

  • What is your website’s primary purpose? How are people using your interface, where do they have trouble, what does that interface need to do? To find out, you must test. Testing is rough, quick, sketched; testing can be as simple as having someone perform an action and seeing how well they accomplish it. Watch what happens and record the results.
  • Next, get as much data as you can to determine if it’s an isolated or universal problem. Once you do this, then the issue is to analyse the question that is the primary action and does the interface accommodate it? All this is based on the primary action required.
  • And third, be brutally honest about how you apply this data, even if it ends up erasing or changing things you thought were vital. Great design is about removing complexity, so be open to the fact your great design might just be making things worse!

Another round of testing post-changes is also essential and can let you know how effective your changes were. I’d say that while user feedback shouldn’t rule your decisions, the users themselves determine the sucess of your work so it’s wise to listen closely to them and their experiences with it.

For more on user testing, I love the book Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug.


Nathaniel Flick

I'm a Front End Web Developer passionate about usability. My primary specialties are HTML5, CSS3, SCSS, LESS, and jQuery and I am very familiar with Foundation and Bootstrap frameworks. I've worked on top of and with WordPress, Shopify, Rails, Python, and frameworks.

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