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Testing and evaluating prototypes

From: Foundations of UX: Prototyping

Video: Testing and evaluating prototypes

The entire purpose of building prototypes is to test ideas and determine the feasibility and usability of your design. So, it probably goes without saying that perhaps the most important part of the prototyping process isn't actually building them. It's testing and evalating them. Without focused, effective feedback, all of the hard work that you put into building prototypes would be wasted. That's why it's absolutely critical to make sure that you have effective usability testing as part of your design process. There's an entire industry dedicated to usability testing.

Testing and evaluating prototypes

The entire purpose of building prototypes is to test ideas and determine the feasibility and usability of your design. So, it probably goes without saying that perhaps the most important part of the prototyping process isn't actually building them. It's testing and evalating them. Without focused, effective feedback, all of the hard work that you put into building prototypes would be wasted. That's why it's absolutely critical to make sure that you have effective usability testing as part of your design process. There's an entire industry dedicated to usability testing.

And I'm not going to make anyone an expert in a single video. But I want to start you in the right direction by giving you a general workflow for testing and evalating prototypes. They can help provide you with meaningful feedback. The very first thing you should do, before evaluating prototypes, is to decide what feedback, exactly, you are looking for. Now this sounds rather obvious but, unless you establish a clear focus for what it is that you're wanting to measure. You'll end up collecting a lot of data that can be hard to prioritize after the testing session is over.

Without a clear focus, it's really easy to miss important details. When you evaluate prototypes, you have three basic participants. The facilitator The users, and the observers. Facilitators are typically highly skilled usability testing experts. If you don't have one on staff, and can't budget the time or money to bring one in, it's likely that it'd be either you or one of your team members. If that's the case, here a few of the responsibilities for facilitators, and the qualities that make a good one.

It's the facilitator's job to set expectations and goals for the session, explain how the process works and then guide the users through the test. Setting proper expectations is important. Testers will be much more comfortable if they know why they're there, what they're testing and what's expected of them along the way. As the facilitator guides users through the test it's important that they post questions the right way and refrain from asking leading questions. Giving users a task such as using the interface, select an entree that accurately describes what you ate last night is a lot better than saying Click the main menu element that most closely represents the entree you had for dinner last night and then refine your choice using the subsequent menu items.

It's important that you tell your users what you want them to do but not how to do it. A talented facilitator is also really good at knowing when to ask questions. And when to let the users work through the interface. If a tester is stuck, it's helpful to ask questions that find out why, like what were you expecting to see here? How is this section unclear? Or, what would add clarity at this stage? Observing how a tester uses your interface is important, but knowing why they failed, and what they were expecting, is even more important.

It's also equally important that your testers represent your target audience as closely as possible. If your testers aren't part of your target demographic, you might get some decent usability feedback, but you won't be any closer to determining ,whether or not your application meets the goals of your user. Keep this in mind, if you ever use one of the online usability services. You need to have some way of measuring how your audience is going to respond to your project. The last group of participants in a testing session will be the observers.

These could be stakeholders, developers, designers, really anyone that's going to take part in the evaluation and refining process. While this group should take notes, they shouldn't participate in any other way. Don't have them ask questions or make suggestions. That's the facilitator's job. They're there to do one thing only, observe and then report. If you are doing your own testing session, you might not have any observers. It's always better to have them than not, but even so make sure you record everything. Being able to screen capture how users interact with the prototypes and video tape their dialogue, is important for later review.

Often your best observer will be a video camera. As far as the testing setting itself, I recommend setting a 30 minute to one hour time limit on all of your testing sessions. Towards the one hour mark testers tend to lose focus. More than likely you're going to be testing specific parts of your project so your average testing session will be anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. After a session is over have the facilitator take some time to interview the testers. Find out what surprised them. How closely the interface matched what they were expecting to see and if they have any suggestions for improvements that would make it easier to use or more satisfying.

If you're doing multiple sessions at once, be sure to give them a break between sessions. Once your sessions are over, you need to evaluate the results. I recommend doing this right away while the data is still fresh. Try to arrange data in groups. For example, you could have one group for user errors, another for enhancement ideas, another for successes, and so forth. These groups should be structured around the goals of the session. Observations that don't conform to this goal should be separated into another group. You know, it's great that the session might prompt unexpected innovations.

But you need to remain focused on what the goals of the session were. Separating this non related data allows you to evaluate it separately and avoid tangible discussions. I really like using index cards for the stage. An index card forces you to be concise when writing down the observation and then you can tape or pin them to the board in their grouping. Once all the observations are up, you can then discuss them and prioritize them based on importance. This is a great way to leave the session with a clear direction and set of goals for revising the product.

Understand that this process might take longer than you think. It's easy to generate hundreds, if not thousands, of observations from a single testing session. Give yourself the time to work through these points and organize them. Hang them on a wall or a board at your studio that can then remain up through the development process, is a really good idea. After you're done with the testing session, at that point, you'll then refine the project based on your observations, and then test it all over again. Just remember that the value of your prototypes is in the testing of them.

Put just as much time and effort in to insuring the success of your testing and evaluating as you do in generating your prototypes.

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Foundations of UX: Prototyping

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James Williamson
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