Usability testing

Usability testing

Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product by testing it on users. This can be seen as an irreplaceable usability practice, since it gives direct input on how real users use the system [Nielsen, J. (1994). Usability Engineering, Academic Press Inc, p 165] . This is in contrast with usability inspection methods where experts use different methods to evaluate a user interface without involving users.

Usability testing focuses on measuring a human-made product's capacity to meet its intended purpose. Examples of products that commonly benefit from usability testing are web sites or web applications, computer interfaces, documents, or devices. Usability testing measures the usability, or ease of use, of a specific object or set of objects, whereas general human-computer interaction studies attempt to formulate universal principles.

History of usability testing

A Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) employee wrote that PARC used extensive usability testing in creating the Xerox Star, introduced in 1981. [] Only about 25,000 were sold, leading many to consider the Xerox Star a commercial failure.

The Google Book Search preview, of the Inside Intuit book, says (page 22, 1984), "... in the first instance of the Usability Testing that later became standard industry practice, LeFevre recruited people off the streets... and timed their Kwik-Chek (Quicken) usage with a stopwatch. After every test... programmers worked to improve the program." [,M1] ) Scott Cook, Intuit co-founder, said, "... we did usability testing in 1984, five years before anyone else... there's a very big difference between doing it and having marketing people doing it as part of their... design... a very big difference between doing it and having it be the core of what engineers focus on. [,1000000308,2065537,00.htm]

Cook may not have known of the PARC work, but it sounds more like he knew it only related to marketing design, as opposed to engineering and re-engineering decisions based on direct user input. In any event, at the time of this writing Google seems to have no Usability Testing projects between the PARC work and Quicken, but many after Quicken became a top commercial seller.

Goals of usability testing

Usability testing is a black-box testing technique. The aim is to observe people using the product to discover errors and areas of improvement. Usability testing generally involves measuring how well test subjects respond in four areas: efficiency, accuracy, recall, and emotional response. The results of the first test can be treated as a baseline or control measurement; all subsequent tests can then be compared to the baseline to indicate improvement.

*"Performance" -- How much time, and how many steps, are required for people to complete basic tasks? (For example, find something to buy, create a new account, and order the item.)
*"Accuracy" -- How many mistakes did people make? (And were they fatal or recoverable with the right information?)
*"Recall" -- How much does the person remember afterwards or after periods of non-use?
*"Emotional response" -- How does the person feel about the tasks completed? Is the person confident, stressed? Would the user recommend this system to a friend?

What usability testing is not

Simply gathering opinions on an object or document is market research rather than usability testing. Usability testing usually involves a controlled experiment to determine how well people can use the product. [ 1]

Rather than showing users a rough draft and asking, "Do you understand this?", usability testing involves watching people trying to "use" something for its intended purpose. For example, when testing instructions for assembling a toy, the test subjects should be given the instructions and a box of parts. Instruction phrasing, illustration quality, and the toy's design all affect the assembly process.


Setting up a usability test involves carefully creating a scenario, or realistic situation, wherein the person performs a list of tasks using the product being tested while observers watch and take notes. Several other test instruments such as scripted instructions, paper prototypes, and pre- and post-test questionnaires are also used to gather feedback on the product being tested. For example, to test the attachment function of an e-mail program, a scenario would describe a situation where a person needs to send an e-mail attachment, and ask him or her to undertake this task. The aim is to observe how people function in a realistic manner, so that developers can see problem areas, and what people like. Techniques popularly used to gather data during a usability test include think aloud protocol and eye tracking.

Hallway testing

Hallway testing (or hallway usability testing) is a specific methodology of software usability testing. Rather than using an in-house, trained group of testers, just five to six random people, indicative of a cross-section of end users, are brought in to test the software (be it an application, web site, etc.); the name of the technique refers to the fact that the testers should be random people who pass by in the hallway. The theory, as adopted from Jakob Nielsen's research, is that 95% of usability problems can be discovered using this technique.

In the early 1990s, Jakob Nielsen, at that time a researcher at Sun Microsystems, popularized the concept of using numerous small usability tests -- typically with only five test subjects each -- at various stages of the development process. His argument is that, once it is found that two or three people are totally confused by the home page, little is gained by watching more people suffer through the same flawed design. "Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford." [ 2] . Nielsen subsequently published his research and coined the term heuristic evaluation.

The claim of "Five users is enough" was later described by a mathematical model [Virzi, R.A., Refining the Test Phase of Usability Evaluation: How Many Subjects is Enough? Human Factors, 1992. 34(4): p. 457-468.] which states for the proportion of uncovered problems U

U = 1-(1-p)^n

where p is the probability of one subject identifying a specific problem and n the number of subjects (or test sessions). This model shows up as an asymptotic graph towards the number of real existing problems (see figure below).

In later research Nielsen's claim has eagerly been questioned with both empirical evidence [ 3] and more advanced mathematical models (Caulton, D.A., Relaxing the homogeneity assumption in usability testing. Behaviour & Information Technology, 2001. 20(1): p. 1-7.). Two of the key challenges to this assertion are: (1) since usability is related to the specific set of users, such a small sample size is unlikely to be representative of the total population so the data from such a small sample is more likely to reflect the sample group than the population they may represent and (2) many usability problems encountered in testing are likely to prevent exposure of other usability problems, making it impossible to predict the percentage of problems that can be uncovered without knowing the relationship between existing problems. Most researchers today agree that, although 5 users can generate a significant amount of data at any given point in the development cycle, in many applications a sample size larger than five is required to detect a satisfying amount of usability problems.

Bruce Tognazzini advocates "close-coupled testing": "Run a test subject through the product, figure out what's wrong, change it, and repeat until everything works. Using this technique, I've gone through seven design iterations in three-and-a-half days, testing in the morning, changing the prototype at noon, testing in the afternoon, and making more elaborate changes at night." [ 4] This testing can be useful in research situations.

ee also

* ISO 9241
* Software testing
* Educational technology
* Universal usability
* Commercial eye tracking
* Don't Make Me Think


External links

* [ Learn About Usability Testing (]
* []
* cite web
title=Why You Only Need to Test With 5 Users
author=Nielsen, Jakob
work=Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability

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