If you want to know how users will interact with your product, really know as opposed to having an opinion, the only way is through usability testing. This differs from creating user personas, showing you real interactions rather than having you think through how you assume people will use your system.

Usability testing allows you to see real interactions as they happen, and note problems users are having, even ones they may not realize they are having. Watching where users are successful and where they fail provides an opportunity to make important changes to the system early in the development process when it is less expensive.

At Seamgen, here are some of the key points we try to cover:

Gauge Value through Secondary Research

Before any testing can begin we need to define the target market for the product or service under test, and describe that demographic. Once the market has been defined, we can look at what research has been done previously on these individuals and similar groups. This will help us identify participants for our study. In some cases, our research may tell us at a very early stage that the product or service is not a good fit for the target market.

Qualify the Target Audience

Once we have conducted our secondary research, we can start our search for test subjects. We identify a few user types, similar to what we discussed with user personas. We decide on identifying characteristics that would place a person in one of our groups, and come up with a strategy for finding candidates and inviting them to participate in our study.

Begin testing and Primary Research

Once we have candidates we can begin to discover what they think about our product or service. Depending on the type of product or service we are testing and the type and number of participants in our study, we may choose an online survey, in-person testing, or a combination of the two. We also need to decide if it is sufficient to ask the participants questions about the system, or if we need to give them interactions tasks and discover how they perform. Often we will ask a user to perform a task, and then discuss with them what they found difficult, or why they decided use the system in a particular way. Often several rounds of testing are required to hone the system to one users can interact with easily. Rarely is the first design the best one, if it were there would be no need for testing.

Report On The Findings

Once we have finished testing, we summarize what we have learned. We detail which of our initial assumptions about usability were correct, which proved untrue, and what we learned about how users perceived the system. We identify whether certain of our groups had more or less trouble with the system. We identify whether our participants would be likely to use the system if it were implemented. We quantify the results, identifying the numbers of participants who successfully completed tasks or answered in certain ways. This objective data is what separates usability testing from other design strategies, giving you much greater certainty about the conclusions.

In Conclusion

Sometimes the conclusion of a study is that the product imagined does not solve the problem it was intended to and should not be built. This can be a very good thing and save a lot of development cost. More often usability testing teaches you what the best part of your idea is, and empowers you to focus on that to maximize the success of your product.

Robert Fisher, the Director of Software Development, is a co-author of this article.