March 24, 2012



Author: Jenn + Ken Visocky O'Grady

User testing, also called usability testing, employs a broad range of techniques designed to measure a product's ability to satisfy the needs of the end user (accessibility, functionality, ease of use) while also meeting project requirements (budget, size, technical requirements). Usability testing is most commonly used in interactive and Web design, but many of the concepts can apply to any product intended for human use—digitally delivered or otherwise.

Usability in interactive and Web design has been linked to several key performance indicators listed below.

Staying under budget: User testing in the early stages of development, as formative research in an iterative design process (more on iterative design on page 54), will ensure that usability hurdles are cleared before the project moves to production. Correcting usability issues after a project is launched can cost significant time and money.

Higher ROI (return on investment): High usability, through user testing and iterative design, can lead to increased sales, business leads, and lower customer support costs.

Increased customer satisfaction: Sites designed with user testing practices will provide positive viewer experiences, leading to higher customer satisfaction and positive brand associations.

Many corporations and universities specialize in advanced usability testing for Web and interactive media and have labs designed around those specific purposes. User participants are asked to complete a set of "tasks": for example, locate a press release, purchase something with a shopping cart, and join a chat room. They are not given any step-by-step instructions or guidance, so the lab environment mimics a typical user experience. Participants are timed throughout the process, and often observed through double-blind mirrors. In some cases, these labs have technology that can record, in real time, the movements of a user's eyes as they navigate information on the screen. This data can be compared to the movements tracked by the user's mouse, illuminating the user's perspective on active content. Though expensive to undertake, this kind of detailed analysis is often invaluable.


TACTIC: Iterative Design

What is it?

Iterative design is based on a cycle of prototyping, testing, and refining. In iterative design, testing the project in some way—whether through focus groups, user tests, personas, or other methods—generates data to compare successive evolutions or "iterations."

What can it do?

Iterative design helps focus the final product through cycles of testing, analysis, and refinement. Questions that may have not been foreseen by other formative research may arise out of the iteration process.

How is it used?

Use iterative design to clarify communication through a series of queries (user testing) and revisions (project adjustment). Designers will benefit from an iterative process but must allow time for benchmark testing, and resulting project revisions when establishing production schedules.When is it used?Any number of testing/analysis/refinement cycles can be employed. These are limited only by production schedules and project budget.

Level of difficulty/complexity

The complexity of iterative design depends entirely on the tactics employed for testing and analysis. Be aware that even when using accessible techniques, the creation of multiple iterations will increase production timelines and consequentially, budgets. Because of the complexity of user needs, interactive commissions are especially good projects on which to practice iterative design.

TACTIC: Personas

What are they?

Personas are fabricated archetypes, or models, of end users. Personas identify user motivations, expectations, and goals. Think of a persona as a singular icon representative of an entire group. Conjecture regarding the persona's reaction in a variety of situations can help designers identify common needs.

In communication design, personas are most commonly associated with interactive work. The American firm Cooper (formerly Cooper Interaction Design) and its principal, Alan Cooper, have been pioneers in the use of this technique. In his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Cooper explains why personas are often preferable to actual test subjects: "The most obvious approach—to find the actual user and ask him—doesn't work for a number of reasons, but the main one is that merely being the victim of a particular problem doesn't automatically bestow on one the power to see its solution."

Although personas are fictitious, they represent the needs of real users and are developed through traditional research processes. This formative research is critical to being able to validate the characteristics of the model and ensure that they are not instead based on the designer's opinion.

What can they do?

Personas help guide the design process by shifting the focus directly to the user. Findings will help organize information, structure navigation, or even influence formal presentation and color choice. Because design efforts are based on these carefully researched and developed personas, the users' goals and needs are sure to be addressed. As agreed-upon identity benchmarks, personas can also help the creative team substantiate their decisions when presenting design rationale to clients.

How to use them?

Personas are created using several sources of information, including ethnographic research, focus groups, and demographic data. A brief description (maybe one to two pages long) is then created to flesh out individual attitudes, behaviors, environmental conditions, goals, personal details, and skill sets. It is important for the researcher to try to identify several different user types so that the goals of all users will be met. Keeping persona sets small ensures that the design process remains manageable, with one primary persona as a focal point.

Personas should be used as a component to a larger research strategy, not as a singular research method. Combining personas with other tools, such as user testing and marketing analysis, can give the designer valuable insight into the user's needs.

When are they used?

Personas can be used throughout the design process. In the planning or formative phases, they can be used to align project goals with audience needs. During the creative development phase, personas can be used as a standard to measure structural or aesthetic decisions.

Level of difficulty/complexity

There is a lot of information available about the creation of personas, specifically regarding their use when designing interactive projects. However, creating functional fictitious identities takes time, so production schedules should be written accordingly.

Source: A Designer's Research Manual