Introducing “CIDeR” (or why I don’t like the term “usability testing”)

Almost three years ago I wrote stop calling it usability testing, essentially making the argument that the term “usability testing” has a lot of baggage and gets mistaken for other things.

I still don’t like using the term in most cases, and I’ll explain why. But in the intervening years I have come up with an alternative, which I’d like to share with you. Within the UX team here at NDM, I’ve been referring to user sessions as CIDeR (Collaborative Iterative Design Refinement) sessions. I’ve had some success in convincing my team-mates and the term is starting to permeate out into the business.

My colleague Lexi Thorn conducting a CIDeR session

Why CIDeR?

Typically our users are involved in our design process by way of a series of one-on-one sessions where users are shown stimuli of some kind, to elicit feedback. The purpose is to guide the design process and allow decisions to be made (usually) regarding the user interface. Successive rounds are used to allow the design to evolve based on user feedback, in effect making users collaborators in the design process.

Hence the name:

  • Collaborative – The user is an integral part of the process, as are our colleagues from other disciplines. This word also helps break down the ‘UX guy is expert’ and ‘participant is lab rat’ dynamic that can accumulate.
  • Iterative – The approach works best if it’s a process of constantly evolving the design or the idea. This word helps convey to the business that this isn’t a one shot deal, there will be several rounds of user involvement, with some thinking and designing in between.
  • Design – Typically these sessions are for the purpose of producing something tangible, whether it’s designing a website or a concept. This word grounds the name/description.
  • Refinement – We are working towards producing something. In conjunction with ‘iterative’ this word impresses upon people the fact this is a process, and in conjunction with ‘design’ it gives a sense of progress.

Oh, and of course there’s the added benefit of being able to say “let’s have some CIDeR and think it through” when the team reaches an impasse or isn’t sure how to proceed.

We involve users in our process in many other ways, from up-front ethnographic research through to large quantitative market research, and lots of things in between, but the bread and butter would be the CIDeR sessions. Hence it’s important for us to be clear what this work is and what it delivers—to our team but also to our business.

Why not “usability testing”?

There are four problems with the term usability testing as a label for the type of work done in a CIDeR session, some of which are refinements of the point I made last time:

  • Promises conclusive, definitive results – The term sounds too absolute. As you’d expect from “testing”, after all other types of testing deliver conclusiveness or they’re considered a failure.
  • Implies a focus on just the UI and usability – Much of what we do is more than usability of the user interface. We’re digging deeper, talking through preferences, perceptions. Part of this is due to the fact that for news products, the content is as much a part of the interface as the buttons, links, labels and code.
  • Suggests summative application – To many people, when you say “usability testing” they think that’s something to be done at the end, a validation exercise to make sure we can go live. This isn’t at all the case for most of the work our team does, which is more about exploration over time; a fluid process rather than check-list item.
  • Coloured by past experience – Any term that has been around for a while, and widely misunderstood or misused, will be horribly tainted by the experience stakeholders have had with things labelled with that term. This is certainly the case with “usability testing”. I often see this as a tendency towards quant; people expect task failure rates, ‘time on task’ and other rigid measurements and won’t give up on those kinds of outputs from our work. Again, these are rarely the things we are looking to obtain.

Don’t get me wrong, if you practice a method that does live up to all of these things, and you call it usability testing, good on you. Our team rarely does, so I don’t want to set an expectation in the minds of my stakeholders that that is what they’re going to get. We needed a new name.

How does CIDeR work with other techniques?

The CIDeR approach is qualitative and indicative, rather than conclusive. Which means that some findings (ie opinions, perceptions, propensity to buy/use) may not be representative of the larger population, and as such it is necessary to:

  1. exercise care in taking these findings on board, using them in the right way, and
  2. make use of quantitative methods, either before or after CIDeR, to determine the implications for the broader audience.

Sometimes a more formal method for involving users in the design process is used, which we do call “usability testing”. A more rigorous approach is taken to assessing how easily users are able use a given design, typically later in the design process. Because this technique is dealing strictly with usability, it is acknowledged that relatively small sample sizes (~5) can be used to draw conclusions about the usability of the design for the entire audience.

Questioning regarding opinions or propensity to buy/use, however, do require larger sample sizes. So, alongside both the CIDeR and “usability testing” methods, quantitative research may also be employed, typically to gauge reactions to a product proposition or design. This focuses more on supporting decision making at a product level as opposed to the design or user interface level.

“Pour me a glass!” or “Ewww that’s left a bitter taste”?

What do you think of the name CIDeR? Would you use it in place of the term usability testing? Why or why not? All feedback greatly appreciated.

(Originally posted to the USiT blog, reproduced here with some minor alterations)