Usability testing trade secrets

I used to love "Trade Secrets" on BBC 2.

Every week the programme focussed on a particular trade and ask its practitioners for their pearls of wisdom that made their everyday working lives easier.

A few random ones stick in my mind:

'Place mirrors round pheasant enclosures to deter foxes.'

'A chamois leather will bring out the shine in a dogs coat.'

'Add a few drops of lemon juice to boiling water to stop rice sticking together.'

'Never buy a car in the dark, you're bound to miss something.'

But what are my usability testing tricks of the trade?

Here are a few that spring to mind.

Over recruit

Assume that some of your recruits won’t turn up and you won’t go far wrong. I always recruit at least one spare person per day to be immediately available if we get a no show.

There is nothing worse than having a client who has managed to persuade a few high level colleagues to observe some user tests only for the user to not show up.

Do a test run

It's all too easy to forget to plan in a dry run. It takes up valuable project time and after all what's the worst that can happen?

I was reminded recently of the importance of a dry run when I realised my test plan was far too detailed for my 1-hour test sessions.

I looked like a chump in front of my colleague (she's used to it), but it left me feeling confident on the actual day of testing because I was comfortable with the structure of the session.

Don't rush into issuing recommendations

It seems like the obvious thing to do to sit with a client at the end of a day’s testing and make rash decisions. I always like to sleep on a day’s testing.

It allows me to understand what was really important, what was noise and what we should focus on.

Consider your own state of mind after viewing a day’s testing. Getting home is a big enough challenge. It is not the right time to be making big decisions about your product.

Make sure your client has a test plan

I never used to issue the test plan to my clients. I considered it as a document for my own use and not necessarily of interest to observing clients.

A client asked for copies of the test plan for her colleagues during one session a few years back. I realised how this would help them to feel more engaged with the sessions.

Make sure you get the right recruits

I remember strutting into a client presentation about five years ago armed with my report and highlight clips from user testing. Things were going really well until I showed the first clip.

My client turned to me after 10 seconds and said, "She's not our target market". From there on in I was dead on my feet.

If the recruitment is wrong then your research is flawed, it really is as simple as that.

Set clear objectives

It's a horrible feeling when you conduct hours of research and then think to yourself "what did I actually learn from all that?".

By setting clear objectives for your research you are establishing the building blocks of the project and everything grows from them.

Write your research objectives in your test plan. Make sure that everything in your plan contributes to addressing your objectives.

Prioritise your recommendations

A report must be written in a format that makes it easy for your client to take actions based on your recommendations.

It is important to show how important you feel the issues are in comparison to one another. This allows your client to prioritise how these issues are going to be addressed.

Ask your client prior to writing the report what format they need. You might save yourself lots of time and you will be confident that you are giving them what they need.

Do what you can to bring users to life

We get the pleasure of seeing the whites of our users’ eyes and really connecting with them during our research. Our clients aren't always so fortunate. At best they may see their users from an observation room or at worst hear them described in a persona document.

Your reports should bring users to life for your clients. Include photos, video clips and quotes to help your clients to understand their needs and to make them feel like they know them.

Make it easy for people to observe your research

User research can be a wonderful method of solving a stalemate in a project. You may have hit a point where stakeholders are in disagreement on certain aspects of a design or just can’t make their minds up on the best route to take.

A quick and simple user test can help to move the project on, so make it easy for stakeholders to view it either first hand or remotely.

When making design decisions it's so much better to substantiate them with a shared experience "You remember when" as opposed to "We saw in testing".

So what are your usability testing trade secrets?

James is responsible for leading user-centred design projects across all industry sectors, and also runs cxlabs. He has written two UX books, speaks regularly at international conferences, and co-founded UXBristol.