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What is Observation?

Observing a man doing work on several large monitors

In user research, we primarily do two things – observe people and ask questions. Ideally, we want to observe people’s natural behavior, without having our presence influence what they do.

Observation sounds deceptively simple. You sit and watch what people do. It seems like anyone can do that. But to get the most value out of observation, there’s more to it than passively looking and listening.

In my latest UXmatters article, I examine what observation involves, the different types of observation methods, and explore a more rarely used method in UX research – naturalistic observation. The Role of Observation in User Research

 

Image courtesy of: You Belong in Longmont

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Difficult Usability Testing Participants

Usability testing session

A key skill you need for usability testing is the ability to work well with a variety of different types of people. You meet all kinds of people as usability testing participants. Over time, you get used to adjusting your approach to different personalities and characteristics. Most people are easy to deal with. However, some people present challenges.

In my latest UXmatters article, “Wrangling Difficult Usability Testing Participants,” I discuss ten types of challenging participants and how to best adjust your interaction with them to get the best testing experience.

Paper Prototyping: Is it still worth it?

In my latest UXmatters article, I compare the latest prototyping tools to paper prototyping. Paper has long had the advantage in allowing designers to quickly and easily create early prototypes, that look unfinished, and encourage users to honestly provide criticism. However, the latest prototyping tools have caught up to, and in some cases surpassed, paper in making it very easy and quick to create prototypes without any coding.

So, do the advantages of paper prototypes still beat these new prototyping tools? That’s what I explore in my latest article, Prototyping: Paper Versus Digital.

Image credit: Samuel Mann

Testing Your Own Designs

Usability testing session

Today I published an article in UXmatters, Testing Your Own Designs. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t conduct usability testing on your own designs, because you may be too biased, defensive, or too close to the design to be an impartial facilitator. Although that may be the ideal, often UX designers don’t have a choice. They may be the only person available to test the design, so if they don’t test it, no one will. So in this article I provide advice for those times when you have to test your own design, and I also provide advice for when someone else tests your design.

I was hesitant to write this article, because it’s been a topic that many others have written about, but I felt that as someone who has been on all sides of the issue, I had something additional to add. Here are some other good articles about this topic:

Testing Your Own Designs: Bad Idea? and Testing Your Own Designs Redux by Paul Sherman

Should Designers and Developers Do Usability? by Jakob Nielsen

BECAUSE NOBODY’S BABY IS UGLY … SHOULD DESIGNERS TEST THEIR OWN STUFF? by Cathy Carr at Bunnyfoot

This One Goes to 11

I just published an article on UXmatters, 10 User Research Myths and Misconceptions. It addresses common misunderstandings about user research that I’ve encountered over the years.

Here’s a bonus outtake from the article, Myth 11…

Myth 11: Field Research Is Better Than Usability Testing

On the other end of the spectrum from those who don’t understand the difference between user research and usability testing, are the user research elitists who think up-front, generative user research methods are far superior to usability testing. In this view, field studies take researchers out of the lab to observe people in their natural environments performing their usual activities, while usability testing takes place in the sterile, artificial environment of a usability lab and asks people to perform a limited set of artificial tasks. Instead of learning about people and what they really do, usability testing provides the limited value of learning whether people can perform your artificial tasks.

The Truth: Both Field Research and Usability Testing Have Their Places

Field studies and usability testing are two different methods used for different, but equally important, purposes. Field studies provide information to inform design, while usability testing evaluates a design. You have to make interpretations and conclusions from the user research and apply that to a design. Even after very thorough user research, you’re never completely sure that what you’ve designed will work well for the users. Usability testing is the evaluation that either confirms your decisions or points you to refinements. Both user research and usability testing are important and necessary. There’s no reason we can’t appreciate the value of both methods.

UX Testing?!!

Old Man Usability

Old Man Usability

Okay, now wait just a goddamn minute! UX testing? U-X testing?!! Now that’s just going too far!

You think you’re all better than me and don’t need “usability” anymore? “User experience” is a more inclusive and descriptive term about the aspects we’re interested in these days. Yeah yeah, fine. It’s more than just usability. Okay, I get it.

But keep your damn UX hands off my usability testing!!! That’s my signature method. I invented that! Talk about kicking a man when he’s down.

What am I talking about, you say? I’ve begun to notice this disturbing trend of you UX creeps stealing my method and calling it “UX” testing. Just look at this recent article from those fancy-pants, “digital marketers” over at eConsultancy: A Case for UX Testing and Agile. And then I noticed this article from last year: UX Testing and Cultural Preferences. Even User Zoom has gotten into the act with this article: 17 Questions Answered About UX Testing and Agile. And it doesn’t stop there. I just Googled “ux testing” and got 28,300 results!

Usability testing has been providing more than just usability for a long time. So in some ways I see your point that perhaps the word “usability” only describes part of what this method provides insight into.

But usability testing is the one method that’s still primarily about usability. Put participants in a lab (or test them remotely), give them tasks to perform, observe their behavior, and ask them to tell you what they’re thinking – that’s usability testing. In addition to assessing usability, it can provide information about satisfaction, emotions, and opinions, but it doesn’t give you a true depiction of the user experience. Other UX research methods give you a better picture of the user experience by observing people in their natural contexts of use. You can test usability, but you can’t really test the user experience.

And what are these people who are doing “UX testing” really doing? You guessed it! Usability testing. It’s nothing different. Just a name change.

So, I agree that user experience makes sense, but that doesn’t mean you should do a global find and replace, turning every instance of “usability” into “user experience.”

So keep your damn hands off my usability testing! It will always be “usability testing” no matter what you want to call it.

By the way, Googling “usability testing” brings up 2,110,000 results. So there!

– Old Man Usability

How is usability testing like beer?

Glass of beer

Flickr: HeadCRasher

My manager asked me recently, “Do you think usability testing has become a commodity?” He was referring to the fact that in the last year or two we’ve seen clients go with cheaper usability testing companies. He was questioning whether clients have decided that there’s no difference between usability testing companies except price. Quality isn’t a differentiator to them anymore (if it ever was).

It does seem that there are companies out there doing usability testing at increasingly lower prices. How they cut corners to get their costs low enough to still make a profit amazes me, and it makes me wonder what kind of quality the clients receive.

Then an analogy dawned on me – usability testing, as a consulting service, is like beer. There are many people out there who are perfectly happy drinking cheap beer. It’s cheap, it’s bland, but it does the trick in the end – it gives you a buzz. But that doesn’t mean everyone is satisfied with cheap beer. There are still those out there who appreciate and will pay more for craft beer with quality, taste, and a better buzz.

If you want cheap usability testing, you can get it. It won’t taste good or be the best quality, but if all you’re looking for is a cheap buzz, it will do the trick in the end. On the other hand, if you have a sophisticated enough palette, you’ll be able to tell the difference between cheap usability testing and craft usability testing, and you’ll be more satisfied in the end. The bottom line is: you get what you pay for. There’s usability testing out there for all tastes and budgets.