Recently at CiscoLive!, we spent a full week with customers and partners doing in-detail usability tests of Cisco.com and some of our mobile sites and apps. This is one of the main methods we use to make our web and mobile easier.
What’s a usability test? Something different than you might think. While you’ve probably heard of other research techniques like focus groups and surveys, usability tests and listening labs are a way for us to learn through observing how people use our sites: We have someone sit down in front of the screen and ask them to do a task that they would in their real work day. This could be solving a support question, researching a new product, finding the right download, investigating a new API, or any number of other things.
Here’s the difference between a usability test vs. a focus group or survey: In a focus group, a facilitator often throws out an idea or scenario and gets a group of people to comment on it. The people in the room will tell you what they might like… they will build on others comments… they may give you some great ideas! But, you won’t really be learning by observing. You won’t understand the kinds of things they will actually do in real life, because you’re asking them what they think they would do. You aren’t observing.
But when we observe people using our mobile apps or web sites, we can see lots of things. For instance:
- We can see the areas that trip them up (even if they report to us that the experience is just fine)
- We can see the areas where they’re getting the wrong result (even if they think they’re getting the right one).
- Or sometimes even technical problems that we see and can troubleshoot, but they can’t.
We recommend running usability tests or listening labs at multiple stages for major projects:
- At the beginning of the project – when you want to understand current state and also look at how competitive or best practice sites and apps are doing.
- In the middle – while you’re still developing, and direct observation and feedback can make a huge difference
- Before release – so you can catch any last-minute problems
- After release – because sometimes when outside factors and environments affect the app or web experience in way you can’t expect (for instance, how and whether people can find your site topic on Google or other search engines, and how they interact with the results).
Even though this sounds like a lot of testing, there are some new techniques you can use to get real user feedback very quickly – within hours or days. I’ll talk about that in a future post.
Meanwhile, keep testing. And, remember baseball legend Yogi Berra, who said:
“You can observe a lot by watching!”