No matter how well you recruit representative participants for a usability test and no matter how well you plan the testing, there are times when you’ll ask participants to perform a task that they might not normally perform themselves. It’s rare that every task you ask people to perform matches exactly what they would do. When this happens, most participants are agreeable enough to just “play along” for the purposes of the test.
Sure, it’s good to know what a participant would normally do instead of your planned task, but that’s more useful to learn during field studies. During a usability test, you usually just want to observe how well people can perform tasks.
During a recent usability test of an intranet design, I asked participants to browse the Blogs section to test out the usability of the filtering and searching functions common across the various sections of the intranet. I used the Blogs section as an example because that was the section we had built out in our prototype. Unfortunately, I came across two participants who were “too cool” to read blogs. In fact, they were too cool to even play along with my ridiculous and demeaning scenario.
It went something like this:
Me: Show me where you’d go if you wanted to see all the blogs in the company.
Joe Cool: Oh, I wouldn’t do that.
Joe Cool: I don’t read the blogs.
Me: Why is that?
Joe Cool: Who cares about blogs? I don’t have time to read blogs.
Me: Okay, but if you did want to see all the blogs, where would you find them?
Joe Cool: I really wouldn’t do that. People here don’t really pay attention to the blogs. Who has time for that? We have enough to do with…
[Two minutes later]
Me: Okay, well that’s good to know, but just for the sake of this session, let’s say that you did want to read the blogs, where would you go to do that?
Joe Cool: [Sigh] Well, I guess I’d go here, and – here it is. But you see the problem with blogs is that…
[One minute rant later]
Me: Okay, what would you do if you wanted this to show you the most popular blog posts in the company?
Joe Cool: I don’t really care about what other people think is popular, especially from people who read blogs.
Me: Okay, but if someone else wanted to see the most popular blog posts in the company, what should they do here?
Joe Cool: Maybe they should ask someone else who reads blogs a lot? Or they should get a life and do something more productive.
Me: Okay, let’s move on to the next part…
Luckily, the next task was cool enough for him. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for.