Usability testing - the cheap way

10th May 2001

Chris Rourke answers a reader's question in Scottish Computer Headline.

Question

I have read about the importance of usability testing software projects and it makes sense to me that seeing real people use a site will improve the design. However, a testing lab can be very expensive to build - I have been quoted over £10,000. Our budget will not stretch that far, but can we test with a less expensive lab?

Chris Rourke's response
The quick answer: definitely yes. Usability labs are nice to have but not essential, and very valid results can be gained from simple tests with nothing more than 2 chairs and a computer!

I have been fortunate enough to work in fully equipped usability testing labs with one-way mirrors, multiple video cameras, mixing and editing equipment. Usually, these are only economically viable for very large projects or multinational companies designing a range of products. On the other hand, most web projects have far fewer resources and usually tight timescales.

Usability testing at its most basic level only requires a quiet testing area (e.g. conference room) a test subject, a test facilitator, and the product being tested, whether it is on a computer or a paper prototype. More important than facilities is a well thought out test procedure: What are the tasks the subject will do? What information and feedback will you gather? How will the subjects be found and rewarded? If you have access to a video camera (ask a work colleague) then set that up behind the subject to capture the screen. This will help in case you need to review the subjects’ comments or show someone else the test. In fact getting some developers and project managers to watch a testing session is one of the best ways to raise their awareness of usability problems and get them resolved. In these cases a video or CCTV set-up for live viewing from a separate room is a worthy investment.

I've been extremely impressed with the quality, thoroughness and speed of your work - the insights you've given us have made us slap our heads over some things that are staring us in the face; it's also validated some of the things that we've been saying need attention for ages. 

Website Manager, Britannia Building Society.