There is a common question asked in most companies I’ve gone to work for, and that is “How do we make software that people enjoy using?”

Well, I have news for you. Most people (me excluded) don’t like using software. Unless we are all lucky enough to do all of our work on an iPad, we’re going to experience varying degrees of frustration with the software we have to use, and we’ll avoid using software that is not an absolute necessity to our livelihood.

So how does a software company counteract the frustration most users feel towards their computers but still release products that users will buy?

Usability tests.

Have representative users come in and try out a prototype of your software concept. This will save you time in your development process, ensure you’re getting it right the first time, and help you to keep support costs down post-launch by making sure the software is easy enough to use that people don’t have to contact your company with ‘how-to’ questions.

There are many different approaches to usability testing, but you can do casual studies with 1 week and a simple mock-up on the cheap, or formal studies with a dedicated usability lab, cameras, screen capture, and an audience of developers. I’ve even done successful usability tests in a corner of a tradeshow booth. Even a small amount of qualitative or quantitative user data is going to save you time and avoid HCI design problems later in the development cycle when changes become more expensive.

A very simplified description of a usability test consists of:

  1. Create a semi-functional prototype with key features active in a Flash-based or HTML5-based mockup
  2. Write a list of tasks to be completed by the user (i.e. new file, make changes, save file, open changed file)
  3. Make note of where the user tries to click to achieve their goal and where they get confused
  4. Interview them and find out their thoughts on the experience

A few weeks spent on this effort pays off in the long run by giving you a product that people can use while allowing your engineers to design and develop features once without having to go back and redo their work.

For more information and guidance on running affordable usability tests, visit the presentation on Slideshare ‘Usability For All Budgets’

Please get in touch if you would like help in setting up your usability testing processes.