Usability Testing

Usability is a key quality of any software product. Software is purchased for a variety of reasons: entertainment, communication, accounting, time management, or production. If the software itself presents a challenge in achieving a result, its intended purpose suffers even more. Most software automates routine tasks, but can add layers of complexity and confusion based on the interface, the way it functions, and suitability to the work at hand. Prior to the introduction of the software into the general market, it must be tested to assure that it can be used by a wide cross-section of its intended audience.

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Testing Rationale - The failure of many development efforts is to rely solely on users "wish lists." Asking users for lists of features or fixes they want added to the next product is good public relations, but is incomplete. These descriptions point to a need, but they don't create a solution. A solution is based on meeting a real need. Testing assures that real software users have a real tool to meet daily challenges.

Goal Identification - Goals are an essential element of testing. Definition of the testing objective or objectives is critical to assure that correct information is developed during the course of the investigation. Set reasonable goals - and run a series of tests to investigate all the issues highlighted by the goals. Testing goals can be formative or summative. the overall goal of testing is to locate and define usability deficiencies. A formative evaluation improves a product during development, while summative evaluations analyze the quality of the interface by quantitative means.

Test Plan Protocol - The testing process is straightforward. Select users who would typically use the feature being tested. Give them realistic tasks to complete, ask them to "think out loud" while they work, and note if they experienced frustration or satisfaction with the feature. A usability specialist or developer sometimes prompts the user for more information along the way, and answers questions to keep the user on task.
 
Actual testing should begin with a discussion of the interface for known usability problems and errors already documented but unresolved. Fully instruct the respondents as to the evaluation methodology and documentation tools provided. Assure the respondents that any information is valuable; even if they "assume" that inexperience and unfamiliarity cause usability challenges. Additional triggers for usability evaluation include help desk inquiries, email inquiries, and professional critiques of the software.

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