I had an interesting discussion with several people this week that I could summarize this way: “How does software get designed and built that no-one can use?”
“Usability is the combination of fitness for purpose, ease of use, and ease of learning that makes a product effective.” according to the University of Maryland’s Guide to Usability. Not everyone loves software usability testing. It has been jokingly said that if the software was difficult to code, it should be difficult to use. Unenlightened project managers may even think of users as the enemy. Of course, that is not true. Satisfied users are salesmen for your products and champions of future business opportunities.
However, pleasing users can be challenging. If you are a software or project manager you know what I am talking about.
In a usable product, says, Dan Costenaro, Microsoft Outlook Program Manager, "Anyone can walk up to your piece of software, sit down in front of the computer, and accomplish their goal. If it’s not goal-driven from the user’s perspective, they will never figure it out." I agree. Dr. Karen McGraw takes this even further, adding that, “If the user interface is not designed to support the user’s mental model—the way they approach their tasks and work—it will take them longer to learn, accept, and effectively use the new system.”
I wholeheartedly support the increasingly sophisticated tools and processes being implemented to evaluate software usability. Some of these are useful during formative testing, when the design is fleshed out, while others are more effective during summative usability testing. If you are newly converted to the importance of usability testing or a seasoned veteran always interested in more information, here are some of the resources I suggest you investigate.
A good place to begin is Usability Net’s Methods Table represented in the graphic below. On their website, each cell leads you to articles and more topic information. It is worth wandering around on this well organized site to get an overview of usability evaluation.
Here are a few more sites with information on usability testing:
Guidelines for Usability Testing with Children
Microsoft UI Guides and Usability Testing
Performance Centered Design white paper
Usability Professionals Association
Practical Usability Testing from Digital Web Magazine
National Institute of Standards Usability Reports
Userview Remote Usability Testing (I have not used this service, so I am not recommending it. However, the ability to “watch” users interact with your applications remotely could be useful in some instances and they have a free trial available.)</p>
So bottom line for a PM: Ask your development team what steps, processes and tools they are using to ensure that the interface or product is usable by the user. If you have had some excellent or unpleasant/unsuccessful experiences with usability testing, please share with other PMs in your comments.