Usability Testing Art
“Click there. No there. Right. Over. There. Click, CLICK! DO IT! No. NO. NOOOO!”
Setting: Cambridge, Massachusetts, the mid-90s. Situation: Programmers, designers, marketers, and other usability professionals remotely observing the first test drive of the latest software prototype.
The designers and coders were beside themselves, pounding knees, pulling out thinning beards, as they watched their hand-picked “ideal users” poke, prod, and otherwise navigate their product in exactly the wrong way. By mumbling then yelling point by point instruction to the hapless remote user, perhaps they felt they could somehow will them to “get it.”
Usability testing has stuck with me through the years as a necessary step in any creative process. The premise is you want the thing you’re spending such effort and resources on to be received by the intended user in the way you intended it. Because in reality (despite best efforts to send instruction through remote brainwaves) you can only control the thing and not the user, it’s best to test drive it with a few someones that look like your target audience before you are ready to release it to the full audience. Once it is out there, making changes to a product is a much more expensive proposition.
I have talked with plenty of writers who are not comfortable with the test drive concept, as it sounds too much like releasing of control over their words to someone else. But the fact is, the author is still the author, and still has control over the thing. What usability testing (or a targeted review) allows for is a preview of reader/user reaction and time to adjust course, if you so choose. Control is still with the author, who ultimately decides what to do with the input. In testing your concept/prototype/thing, you are acknowledging that your control is over the words, not the reader. This feels to me like the best way to respect the unwritten contract with your target reader.
How often, though, do writers blame the reader for not getting it, then go into the self-spin of “my art is art for a rarefied breed of art appreciator.” That reader/reviewer/critic who didn’t get it is just not smart enough. Fine, if that is your logic, then find a few art appreciators of your particular rarefied breed before casting your wares out into the world. Expose them to your art. See if they get it.
True, in most cases, you don’t need or even want everyone to get it. But if your target audience is perplexed, ask yourself if confusion was your intended outcome. If not, you may want to do some tweaking.
What we frequently found, back in my internet start-up days, was that the adjustments needed to make designer intent match user experience were relatively minor. Change the color of a function button from red to blue. Move a text box an inch to the right. Wordsmith the help text.
I go through this same process with every blog post, poem, article, white paper, and executive summary I write. I find the person who looks most like the one who needs to get it. I ask nicely for them to read it and give me feedback, let me know if they get it. I weigh their input, and adjust accordingly (as I see fit).
More often than not, the changes are minor tweaks. But those tweaks make all the difference between getting it and not getting it.