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Never Enough Time

The Passage of Time

Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Like many things in life, there’s never seems to be enough time for user research. Sessions are too short, and there’s never enough time to analyze the results. What effect does this have on the quality of the research? A lot!  But surprisingly, just adding a little extra time can make all the difference.

Not enough time for sessions

User research sessions are frequently too short, leaving you to decide whether to rush through the session, trying to cover everything at a high level, or you only cover a portion of the questions. Either way, you waste an opportunity.

The time needed for research sessions is unpredictable. The focus of research always seems to expand with additional client requests and topics that you would like to cover. You never know exactly what you’ll encounter during a session. Some participants have more to discuss than others, some encounter more problems than others, and some are just more talkative. So session times can vary greatly between participants.

It’s always better to err on longer sessions. If you plan for more time than you need, no one minds ending early and getting back some extra, unexpected time. For participants, there’s not all that much difference between a one hour session and a 90 minute or two hour session. If they’re coming in to your lab, a focus group facility, or some other location, the biggest obstacle is taking the time out of their day to travel to and from the location. Once they’ve made that effort to get to you, an extra 30 to 60 minutes doesn’t make much of a difference. So plan longer research sessions to ensure you have enough time to cover everything.

Not enough time for analysis

It always amazes me that people will spend so much time and money planning, recruiting participants, and conducting the research and then provide too little time for analysis in a rush to get the findings. Analyzing user research can be extremely time consuming. Unfortunately, you rarely get enough time to analyze the results. Listening to recordings, typing up notes, organizing the notes into themes, analyzing the findings, and then creating deliverables takes time. When this process is rushed, quality is compromised.

Sometimes clients are excited by the idea of conducting research, but are too impatient to wait very long to hear the results. They are usually under the impression that by simply observing the sessions, high-level, overall findings will emerge. They aren’t concerned with taking time to analyze the details. This method often leads to shallow and misguided findings.

Of course there are reasonable limitations in terms of how much a project can wait for analysis and the presentation of the results, but often the time to analyze the results is set arbitrarily. The user researcher then either has to work extremely long hours to fit an enormous amount of work into a small time frame or has to find ways to cut corners.

User research is time consuming and expensive. After putting so much time and money into it, it makes no sense to short change the final step that provides the most value. Providing even a little extra time for analysis can make a big difference in the quality of the findings and in improving the job satisfaction of your user researchers.

The bottom line, provide more time for each user research session and more time for analysis. It won’t add that much more to the cost of your user research, and it will add a lot to the quality of the results.

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Stay Involved with a Usability Review

Before software usability testing emerged in the 1980s and became more widespread in the 90s, quality assurance testing was the only way software was tested before release. Quality assurance was focused on ensuring that developed software met the defined requirements and did not contain any defects. However, requirements were rarely generated through user research. Instead they were usually generated by business stakeholders and documented by business analysts. If users were involved at all, they were often represented by a few subject-matter experts gathered in meetings to talk about what they wanted the software to do.

Bug tracking software

Quality Assurance Testing

Quality assurance analysts tested the software to find technical defects. If the software did what it was supposed to do according to the requirements, it passed the test, regardless of how usable it was or how well it fit the needs of the users.

User Acceptance Testing

“Users” and stakeholders were also involved in user acceptance testing, which was really just a sign off that the software did what it was supposed to do. Occurring at the very end of the software development process, it was difficult to make anything but very minor changes at that point. As long as the software did what it was supposed to do, stakeholders were willing to overlook usability issues. It seemed easier to write off any problems as things to address in training, rather than to require additional development work.

The Evolution of Usability

As it became obvious that this method of software development was failing to address usability issues, usability testing was added to projects in a similar manner as quality assurance, evaluating software at the end of a project to find and fix usability problems. As it became apparent that this was too late to make any major changes, usability testing gradually moved further and further forward in the design process, with multiple iterations of design and testing. Eventually people realized that it would be better to avoid problems in the first place by finding out what users really need at the beginning of the project. Proper user research was born.

We Forgot the End of Projects

Unfortunately, as we’ve moved user research and usability testing earlier in the process, we’ve tended to overlook the end of projects. We do the upfront user research through iterative design and usability testing, but once development begins, we often drop out and move on to the next project. Then when the final product is released, we often find ourselves scratching our heads, thinking, “what happened?” as we see it varies greatly from what we intended.

All kinds of things can happen between the final design iteration we test and the final coded interface. Without being involved in checking the final design and development, problems tend to slip through.

Usability Review

To solve this problem in a previous job, I created a process I called a Usability Review. During functional QA testing, a usability analyst would review the developed application looking for usability and design problems. Any issues found were entered in the QA bug tracking software (Test Director in this case) as usability or design issues and assigned to a developer to review and fix. After fixing or rejecting the problem, the developer assigned the issue back to the usability analyst to either accept or reject the solution. This worked very well and caught a lot of issues.

Advantages of a Formal Usability Review

You may think that staying involved throughout the project would be enough to find and prevent any usability and design problems, but there are several advantages to having an official, detailed usability review process.

  1. As an official step in the project, the usability review gets added to the project plan, ensuring that it will actually take place and that someone will let you know when the application is ready for review. Without that official task in the project plan, it’s easy for others to forget to notify you, and when you’re busy on other projects, it’s easy for you to forget also.
  2. A usability review requires you to examine the application in detail, rather than giving it an overview. A detailed examination tends to find more problems and gives you a more realistic sense of how well it will work for the users.
  3. Entering the issues in the QA bug tracking software gives usability and design problems the same importance and status as QA defects, makes someone responsible for fixing them, and gives you the power to approve or reject the solution.

Can’t QA People Perform the Usability Review?

Can’t Quality Assurance people find usability and design issues themselves, or can’t they be trained to do that? Yes, it’s possible, but usually they don’t have as much knowledge and experience in user experience issues, and they are not usually involved in the user research and usability testing that takes place earlier in the project. Usability and design professionals are the best judges of whether the final application matches the intended design and user experience.

When you do a usability review, you’ll often find issues that are QA defects, and the QA analysts will often find things that appear to be usability or design issues. A good way to coordinate efforts is to enter technical defects and assign them to the QA analyst to assess. The QA analyst can assign any usability or design issues that he/she finds to you to assess.

So add a usability review to your projects and you’ll find that it pays to keep usability and design formally involved all the way to the end of a project. You’ll end up with final products that more closely match the original vision.

New article: Learning the Subject Matter

As a consultant, I work with many different clients from a variety of industries. My company, Electronic Ink, focuses on designing business systems, which means our projects are usually much more complex than the typical website.

My job as a design researcher is to uncover and understand the business needs and user needs. But even before beginning stakeholder interviews and user research sessions, I have to know something about the subject matter to ask the right questions and to understand what I’m hearing and observing. There is usually very little time at the beginning of a project to get up to speed on the subject matter. When the subject matter is very complex, I find that to be the most difficult part of the project.

I recently wrote an article for Johnny Holland (the interaction design blog) about this issue. Read the entire article: Learning the Subject Matter.

How Effective are Incentives for Online Card Sorting?

Unmoderated card sorting tools are a great way to reach a large number of geographically dispersed participants for your card sorting study. With mass emails you can reach a large number of potential participants, but the challenge is getting people to participate in the study. Unfortunately, few people actually open and read these emails, and even fewer take the time to participate in the study.

Email invitation to an online card sorting study

How do you motivate people to participate?

So how do you motivate people to participate in Web-based card sorting or another type of unmoderated, remote user research study? Incentives! But what type of incentive works best for a mass audience? You can give an incentive to each participant, but with a large number of participants that can be very expensive. And if you give each participant a small incentive of say $5.00, how motivating is that?

A common alternative is using a sweepstakes-style drawing. One of the participants out of hundreds will get a gift card or other incentive. But how effective is this sweepstakes-style incentive in increasing the number of participants? Does it affect the quality of the results by encouraging those who are only interested in the incentive and not in completing the study seriously?  Can you motivate people to participate in a study without any incentive? What are the other variables that affect participation?

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