Impact Technical Publications Do-It-Yourself Testing
A word of warning!

If you believe that typical computer and electronics users read technical publications thoroughly and thoughtfully, usability testing will quickly dispel that illusion.

Some users refuse to read technical publications that provide the knowledge required to use a product.

Many do not read technical publications until they run into a problem that they canít solve.

Most users who do read technical publications read them quickly and superficially.

Here's how to conduct usability tests yourself.

Choose the Test Subjects

Recruit test subjects who share the characteristics of typical product users. Colleagues, friends, family, and students are potential recruits. Do not recruit people who have worked with the product prior to the tests. Offering a gift certificate is thoughtful and often encourages people to volunteer.

Conduct the Tests

Many professional usability tests are conducted in a room with a one-way mirror that allows the testers to watch the test subjects. A one-way mirror, however, is not necessary. You can conduct a test in a normal room. Stay in the room with the test subjects and watch as they perform the tasks. The first few times you conduct a usability test, you will be tempted to help the test subjects. Don't do it! We all feel frustrated when test subjects are unable to perform tasks. The purpose of a usability test is to learn why the test subjects can't perform tasks. As you watch the test subjects, observe where they are having difficulties. You can ask them to tell you what they are thinking as they perform the tasks. Listen to them, but don't give them any help!

Provide Technical Support

Ask a person who is familiar with the product to act as a technical support representative. Give the test subjects that person's telephone number to call for help if they need technical support.

If another person is not available to act as a technical support representative, you can perform this role yourself. Answer the test subjects' questions in the same way that a technical support person would answer them. Don't use a question as an excuse to explain what the test subject is doing wrong.

Make Improvements and Test Again

When you understand what is causing the test subjects' difficulties, correct the difficulties by changing the product or the knowledge required to use it. Test the revised product or knowledge on new test subjects. If test subjects still have difficulties, make another round of revisions and conduct more tests.

Fix Usability Problems

The best way to fix usability problems is to improve a product's design. If you do not have time or resources to improve the product, make changes to the knowledge required to use the product. The product's developers can then improve the next version of the product.

Don't discount usability testing because you do not have time or resources to improve a product. When a product is difficult to use, the knowledge required to use the product is critical. Test the knowledge.

If you are testing the knowledge required to use a product, don't tell that to the test subjects. Tell them that you are testing the product. If you tell them that you are testing a help system, for example, many of them will make a special effort to use the help system. If typical customers won't use the help system on their own, you need to know that!

While you are testing the knowledge required to use a product, you may identify improvements to the product that will make it easier to use. Recommend those improvements to the product's developers. If the developers question the value of the improvements, invite them to watch the usability tests.

For More Information

Our free four-page article Usability Testing on a Shoestring Budget contains the information on this Web page as well as two pages of tips for communicating the knowledge required to use products. These tips are based on our observation of several hundred people attempting to install a DSL (digital subscriber line) modem and connect to DSL service. The article is a 128 K PDF file.

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