Stop calling it usability testing

Closing the loop

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me clarify what I mean. When we refer to this activity called “usability testing” there are often a lot of misunderstandings. It’s really not very applicable for the thing we should be doing. Here are some reasons why…

  • It gets mistaken for UAT.
  • It gets mistaken for technical testing.
  • It makes it sound more ‘scientific’ than it (usually) is.

Usability testing is not UAT

UAT, or User Acceptance Testing, is a term used in software engineering to describe when the client would give final approval for the built system to be delivered. This becomes really confusing when the term is taken out of that context and used in web design, for example. When you don’t understand the “user” it refers to and what is being “accepted”, you might very well think UAT is the same thing as “usability testing”.

Conceptually, the intention of UAT might be to make sure those who will ultimately be using the system are happy with it. But in practice, this is rarely the case. I could go on, but this is not a discussion of why I don’t like UAT (which I don’t) but rather my point is that we don’t want stakeholders thinking that usability testing is UAT, and thus something that can be dispensed with because “we always go through UAT”.

Usability testing is not done by Mr Test Manager

The term “usability testing” often gets misconstrued by technical types, project managers and business analysts. It gets turned into a stale, rigid, bureaucratic affair. The old “unit, integration, system” mantra. It’s done as a matter of course, at the end of the gantt chart, to tick a box. That’s pointless.

Again, in theory, test driven design is not a bad thing. Software, websites and anything technically complex should be checked to make sure it has been built as was required. That assumes a lot though, for example are the requirements valid? do users actually want or need what is being built? But let’s leave that one alone.

What I’m trying to say, is that usability testing shouldn’t be mistaken for the technical testing done by a Test Manager according to a test plan, using a test script. (At least not the kind of usability testing I want to be doing, which is possibly a qualification I should have stated up-front). People do run highly structured usability tests—typically summative in nature—which are very similar to technical testing. In my experience this is the minority of cases and the least valuable. On to my next point.

Usability testing sounds really scientific

Following on from the tail end of that last point, the term “usability testing” makes the activity sound more definitive, more scientific. Let’s be honest, even when we try, it usually isn’t. But it doesn’t have to be!

There is a place for large scale, highly structured, task-timing testing, but often what is most useful in terms of formative (but also summative) user input is something more simple. Many use the term “guerilla usability testing”, but that’s really just cowering in the face of academics and purists who scoff at our “lax methods” and “dismal sample size”.

If we don’t put that connotation of science on it, we won’t have to battle questions over statistical significance, or waste time defending something that gave useful results and improved the design process.

Closing the loop with user feedback

So let’s stop calling it usability testing. Let’s call it what it is: feedback, confirmation, validation. Showing people who will be using the thing we’re designing, and getting their feedback. It should be a natural part of the design process, closing the loop to ensure that what we’re designing it usable and useful for the intended audience.

Don’t show your designs to your boss, project manager or stakeholders for “approval” (ok not just to them). Show them to the only people who can truly sign off on them, your users.

I’m talking informal sessions. Collaborative or participatory design, if you will, but not testing.

UX practitioners often call it that to make it sound more than it is, give it more persuasive weight and the importance—or should that be respect?—that it deserves. I did it today in fact (well the day I started writing this post).

But no more. Let’s call it what it is and act like it’s part of the process. We can start to educate our colleagues and get them to the point they assume it’s part of the project too. “No, Miss Project Manager, we don’t need to wait until UAT to see if all the money we spent has paid off”.

What do you think? All feedback appreciated.

[Photo credit: Closing the loop by jspad]