My Boomworks project team recently went interstate for some usability testing. Session after session of introducing users to our design and seeing how they interpreted everything certainly left me feeling exhausted, and I was only taking notes. We saw some users blitz through parts of the site which we were still working on, and saw others stumble in places that we thought we had sorted.
At a restaurant after the second day of testing, we sleepily awaited our food and started talking about the day that was. It was no doubt the unique blend of fatigue, synapses firing overtime, and choice grapes from the Ballarat region that got us to talking about the Zen of user testing.
We postulated that Zen could be achieved by testing with an open mind and putting one’s own ego and preferences aside to listen to and facilitate the user’s needs. While the conversation begun with a facetious tone, it quickly progressed to a higher plane of seriousness. There are always parts of a design that we creators think are particularly clever – but if the people the site was designed for don’t ‘get’ them, then they need to be dropped, or at least tweaked. The other way of looking at this is that empathy needs to overrule any solution that is more convenient or impressive.
If we only designed sites for people in our industry, the results would be quite predictable. On the other hand, trying to design things to work in a way which is logical to someone who doesn’t know the limitations of our software is an enormous challenge. This is when we are pushed to make really clever stuff happen.
The almost meditative channelling of testing Zen typically lasts for days at a time, in 60 minute blocks; with the net result being a thoughtful reassessment of one’s offering to the end user. It’s a focused and selfless pursuit of understanding the needs and desires of candidates representing the millions of end users.
After each round of testing, the next step is to take a look at how user feedback impacts the existing designs. This can be a massive task, which can be all the more difficult if you’ve forgotten to leave your ego at the door. The role of testing is to see how well the design works, and what can be improved. It’s vital to put everything you have into a design – but to selectively ignore inconvenient findings is to forbid the design from growing.
The most difficult part of this process is to compile all of the (seemingly contradictory) feedback into a single direction. This becomes easier by listening to the results themselves. Sure, it’s great if everything goes as expected; but if they don’t, the next design solution needs to acknowledge the results – convenient or not.
It’s always interesting to observe the observer; not everyone who undertakes usability testing sessions seems to be able to achieve a balance of selflessness and personal investment. It’s challenging, exhausting and confronting, but I am looking forward to my next design validation sessions, and striving for the revelations of testing Zen.