Monday, June 2, 2008

The Future of Usability Testing

By Peter Abrahams, Bloor Research

I recently chaired a round table on the Future of Usability Testing. It was sponsored by Techsmith who supply the usability testing tool, Morae. The invited attendees included developers, usability experts, an internet psychologist, and journalists all with considerably understanding and strong opinions about usability. I came with a strong interest in accessibility, which to a great extent can be seen as a subset of the usability requirements. The aim of the roundtable was to better understand how to make usability design and testing business as usual in IT systems. This big question was approached by looking at several more specific questions:

1. Why is usability important?
2. What are the barriers to usability design and testing?
3. How should it be imbedded into all phases of development?

Usability is important because:

- It drives down production costs. There should be fewer calls to the help desk for assistance in using the system. Customers will complete more transactions without having to turn to call centre staff to process the transaction for them. Internal users will complete tasks faster and more accurately, so increasing their efficiency.

- It improves sales. If a system is easy to use a customer is more likely to complete a transaction, so increasing conversion rates. If it is too hard the user will turn to another supplier, with the short-term loss of this sale and the probability of the long-term loss of future sales.
- It enhances brand loyalty. If a system is easy to use then the client should be delighted by the experience. This will add to their positive feelings about the quality of the brand. This is becoming more important as users are being exposed to best-of-breed systems which shows what is possible.
- In the public sector it provides access for all. Government bodies have an obligation to provide services to all members of the community; this should be true of the private sector as well but in reality they can decide not to service some groups. A system that is usable and accessible will reach a very large percentage of the population.

Usability design and testing is not imbedded into the development cycle because:

- The benefits of good usability are not recognised by commissioners of the system. Advocates of usability in IT systems have not been sufficiently vocal. It is assumed that systems will be usable by default. This is in contrast to the effort that is put into the usability of the physical environment such as shop layouts or car design.

- The concepts of usability are not understood by the IT industry. Usability has not been a key part of IT education. IT developers are experts in IT and the technology and do not understand the difficulty many users have.

- The cost and benefits are not visible until a system is in production. When problems are discovered the best solutions may not be obvious and the cost of remedial action may be considered too high, so the system remains less usable than it should be.

- Extra design and testing seen are as a cost. Development is driven by budgets and deadlines; if usability is not included explicitly in the requirements then any usability improvements that could lead to overruns will be shelved until a version 2 fix cycle.

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