Learning about usability
How do you define good usability of an information product? And you don't have to be an expert to run a usability test.
Good usability means real people can do real tasks in a reasonable amount of time. This can include a variety of methods including a formal usability test, A-B testing, heuristic review, or survey of users. I asked Nick Rosencrans to tell us about usability testing, how to do usability testing, and how to get started in the field.
Tell us about you
My name is Nick Rosencrans. I am a User Experience Analyst for the University of Minnesota. Since I started about 15 years ago, I have conducted about 200 usability evaluation projects of varying shapes and sizes, for a wide variety of products and services in the higher education space. My clients vary from individual grant-funded initiatives who need a quick check-in before they launch, to systemwide or cross-institutional initiatives whose usability considerations span months or years.
What is usability, and how is it different from user experience?
The concept of usability is defined pretty well by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). They say that usability means,
The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specific goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use. What I love most about the ISO definition is how it is not enough to be possible to use, in some idealized or vague situation. There are some subordinate concepts that result from considering usability, such as Norman’s principles of design or Nielsen’s heuristics.
By contrast, user experience is a concept about the sensations a user must undergo throughout the situation. Throughout an interaction with a product or service, users may perceive a wide range of elements and reactions. Their experience can be designed or engineered according to a team’s goals. There are subordinate concepts that result from exploring the user experience, such as BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model or nudge theory.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO). “Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 11: Usability: Definitions and concepts”, ICS ISO 9241-11:2018. https://www.iso.org/standard/63500.html
What's your typical week in usability testing?
In a typical week I have two kinds of days: I have off-stage days and I have on-stage days. While not an actual stage, I make a distinction between the typical operational work that moves a project along versus the active moments of facilitating an activity. For my off-stage days, I coordinate with a team of recruiters who invite, schedule, and prepare participants for upcoming studies. Or I meet with my coworkers, clients, or stakeholders to initiate plans or review the backlog of proposed studies. Then I have on-stage days in which I lead synchronous discussion and interaction with my participants while observers from the client’s team help me take notes about what happens.
What tools do you use to perform usability testing?
My team uses Google Suite and Zoom to operate the vast majority of our service. Without a conferencing tool like Zoom, it would be much more difficult to interact with my participants. We have conducted our service fully online, without on-site testing, since 2020. It’s been a pleasure to include stakeholders from across the University of Minnesota system.
What skills do people need to start working usability?
Here are core skills I would recommend for anyone who wants to get into usability:
- Learn about and practice a variety of usability research methods, including audience and task analysis, user stories, heuristic evaluation, and usability testing
- Apply principles of user-centered design theory to usability designs and problems
- Develop understanding of research ethics, using appropriate consent forms in conducting research with human subjects
- Effectively collaborate in teams, demonstrating professionalism in communication and working style
- Propose focused research questions that address specific usability problems and needs
- Analyze data and report results with accuracy and relevance
- Effectively employ principles of writing, editing, information design, and collaboration in generating written, oral, and visual materials
While many of these skills are attainable with an academic program or a workshop, I hope it’s clear that formal training is not required per se. I was fortunate to gain a great deal of awareness about usability simply by being aware of the effect that technology can have on the people who use it.
For more, I recommend a book by Cory Lebson whose second edition was published last summer, The UX Careers Handbook.
Lebson, C. (2016). The UX careers handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group. https://uxcareershandbook.com/
Thanks to Nick Rosencrans for this interview about usability testing. You can find Nick at nickrosencrans.net.