Don’t Break the Bank


When working with clients to create engaging online experiences for their customers, I recommend iterative usability testing—essentially repeated testing—as part of the design and development process. However, I’ve noticed that few of our clients are interested in conducting formal usability studies, particularly over the past couple of years as the economy has slowed.

The perception is that usability research is expensive and ultimately a “nice to have.” While I agree that the costs of a formal lab facility and a professional moderator can quickly add up, the price tag shouldn’t scare businesses away from user research altogether. This is especially true as marketers start to deliver content to users through new mediums—mobile and now the iPad. There is still a lot to learn about how consumers interact with these types of devices.

The fact remains that testing a Web site or application with users before it goes live has many benefits. Through testing, designers can uncover unexpected 
issues with an interface and fix those problems early in the process. Marketers can confirm interactions that work well and highlight features that aren’t being noticed or used as intended.

Usability studies also help squelch opinion battles as it becomes evident where user after user either struggles or completes a task with ease.

The good news is that marketers can achieve the same benefits outside the lab and with much less prep time. While insights might not come in the form of a bound report at the end of a study, they will be relevant and actionable, and can be fed back into the design process almost immediately. The following are three “discount” usability methods that can be utilized.

Hallway Usability
This first method feels like a streamlined version of the traditional iterative usability testing. By making a few modifications to a formal study, marketers can significantly decrease the cost.

The first suggested modification is in recruiting. Rather than drafting a screener and going to a market researcher for a formal recruit, you can improvise and conduct your study with users closer at hand—perhaps even in your office hallway.

My team at Designkitchen and I are doing some Web site work for a well-known car battery manufacturer and recently went to a national chain of mechanics to talk to both employees and customers about their uses of the Web and their opinions of some paper prototypes that we had to share.

We also tested a children’s virtual game world that we designed for a fast food chain by hosting a “bring your child to work” event. We observed as our coworkers’ kids, many of whom brought friends, chose and outfitted avatars, played games and chatted about the experience. In skipping the formal recruit, marketers are not only bypassing the market research fee, but the incentive payment, as well. For the virtual game world usability testing, we gave the children some snacks and movie ticket gift certificates and called it a day.

I’ve even heard of people recruiting and testing in cafes and at a bar. Marketers have to be somewhat courageous to strike up a conversation about interface design with a random pub patron. But remember that this type of testing is qualitative. You don’t need to talk to that many people to walk away with useful information. When my team and I need to work quickly, we’ll test three to five participants, on average.

A second suggested modification to the traditional test is in the testing activity itself. Rather than testing a full on-screen prototype, you can test individual modules or interactions mocked up on paper. By focusing on only those interactions that you think might be troublesome or controversial, you can narrow the scope of your tests and still gain valuable insights.