Events Methods Research

Usability testing is all practice, not magic

I just returned from Westminster Hub where I ran a workshop called “Usability Testing How To’s for Small Teams (and Little Budgets). The workshop is based on my experience setting up the usability testing arm at Future Workshops. As one UX person with fifteen developers, I learned a lot about getting by on a tight timescale.

The group of attendees tonight was great! I was so impressed with how eagerly everyone learned, and how natural they were at facilitating tests. A few things that came up in the discussions were very insightful, and echoed a lot of my experiences running usability tests:

It can be done (today!)

As one of the workshop participants cleverly concluded, there’s no magic involved. Usability testing can be done with more budget, more time, more trained staff, better recruitment, better equipment. The question is whether it’s done at all. It’s entirely possible to hold cheap and quick usability tests and still learn a lot. There wasn’t one group during the workshop that didn’t discover a serious usability problem in just one hour!

Soon after the test part of the workshop began, I started hearing familiar sighs across the room. Cringing soon followed, and then hushed group conversations about things to definitely put in the fixes list. Some attendees had never done usability testing before but were able to facilitate a test and find useful results right away. It can be done!

Workshop photos on Flickr
Instructing a test participant on her first scenario – all smiles so far!
Workshop photos on Flickr
Testing a website with a very specific audience group

It’s hard to stay quiet

Facilitating a test well takes some practice. It always sounds easy on paper, but as the workshop participants quickly realized – theory is different from practice. It’s tough sitting across from a person and watching them struggle with an interface without interfering.

I recognized a lot of the questions from when I was first learning how to facilitate: when do we interrupt the participant? What do we do when they get stuck? How do we ask questions without leading? My formula: if they’re not upset, stay quiet. If they are, tell them something nice.

Challege: DIY recruiting with a specific audience

When a website or app have very specific audience characteristics, recruiting can be a pain. So what do we do? One of the work groups decided to test their own product: a website with data on how many people are killed in drone attacks in conflict areas. They had to make due with participants from the rest of the group attending.

The key for them was setting the right context. A real user would be knowledgable and motivated to find out about drone attacks. To simulate this, they asked participants to read an article about the issue, mentioning their website, and gave them specific instructions on what information to look for. They discovered some usability problems to fix in the process.

There will be another run of this workshop on 22 January, 2014 in London. Would love to see you there!

Meanwhile, my slides are on SlideShare:

And some photos on Flickr:


Why I Won’t Make Up My Mind About iOS7

As a UX practitioner in a mobile agency (who comes from a background in visual design), I was itching to get my hands on the first images of iOS7. Outside of work, my new iPhone 5 interface has been looking increasingly quaint next to my partner’s Windows phone.

From yesterday’s WWDC keynote, it appears that Apple have changed all that. On first glance, the new version of iOS seems polished and exciting. The stunning visuals fit much better with the iPhone’s physical appearance and what we’ve come to expect of current digital interfaces. But the glimpse we got of the visuals tell a bigger story.

The new features and visuals within iOS7 are a manifestation of bigger themes Apple has placed in the limelight. A focus on multitasking between apps and between devices brings exciting improvements such as the OS Mavericks Finder app which has been upgraded with tagging and tabs. Hardware and software improvements for better speed help do more things more quickly, and the new iOS7 Control Center keeps important functions close while we focus on other things.


Photo credit: Apple Insider

Another apparent theme is order. Apple are building a support system for organizing the growing amounts of data users generate. Be it by intelligently grouping photos in the new iOS7 Photos app or by allowing us to tag and better search through documents on the Mac. They have made improvements to handling many tasks with many moving parts while keeping the necessities at hand. The interface changes to iOS7 (with their grids and typography) hint at a stronger call to order visually.

Perhaps the most important focus is on context. Apple’s presentation structure (use case before features) is telling of their strongest ability – enabling the user to complete tasks wherever, however, and whenever they feel is natural. We will now be able to plan journeys on desktop and send maps to the mobile device, see formatting menus based on context in iWork for iCloud, and send iMessage texts while driving with the exciting iOS in the car.

Instead of focusing on a long list of impressive features and specs, Apple always start with the user. This is why it makes sense to see the keynote kicked off by talking about Apple’s principles and how they apply to Apple retail. It’s clear that each feature and detail are part of a bigger system that strives to provide the same great experience to users. This is what makes Apple so hard to copy.

The brief glimpse I caught of the inevitable online reaction was disappointing. I snuck away from dinner to read comments focused mostly on the veneer: mocking the simplicity of the icon design, or questioning the match between the interface colors and that of the hardware. Details that can make a difference but are far from the core of the value Apple introduced at WWDC this year.

iOS7 will be judged by its long-lasting ability to bring joy, usefulness, and convenience to its large pool of users. Sure, the demos and images are exciting, but they’re no measure of a good user experience.

The truth is that we cannot judge the improvements to the user experience of iOS just yet. As Tim Cook mentioned, iPhone users use their devices 50% more than Android uses use theirs. The real test of iOS7 will be in its continued use over time, as kinks get undoubtedly worked out and its truly useful sides emerge from being put in the hands of users.

I can’t wait to get my hands on iOS7 to see how the shiny keynote slides translate to a real-life experience.

Read reactions to the WWDC keynote from my colleagues at Future Workshops in our two part piece about the event.