Reduce the Risk of Product Failure

By Peter Hughes
August 13, 2015
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Usability testing includes a range of techniques that reveal how well your product performs from a very important perspective: your customers’.

At its core, usability testing is an opportunity to observe target customers using your product to perform specific tasks that can validate product assumptions, provide valuable feedback, or identify potential pain points or enhancements. After several tests, you’ll notice usage patterns and comments about what works and what doesn’t. This is vital information you’ll use to fine-tune your product and increase its value to customers.

The sooner you validate product assumptions, the better. There’s little excuse not to run at least a few usability tests as you develop your product; you can run them at minimal cost (from virtually free to a few hundred dollars). And, when you compare the cost of changing designs early in the process instead of after you’ve launched, you’re talking peanuts.

Some tests take only a few minutes to set up and a few seconds to run. Literally. And with the right preparation, there’s little impact on product development schedules.

Let’s take a look at which tests to run at each point in the life cycle, followed by some real-world examples to highlight situations in which usability testing has been effective. Finally, I’ve included step-by-step-instructions for four usability tests you can implement immediately.

Testing All Stages of the Customer Experience

The type of usability test you use depends on where you are in the product development life cycle and what you want to learn. You can perform tests on everything from the earliest product ideas or concepts—think paper sketches, even paper napkins—to prototypes to fully developed systems. Furthermore, you can run these tests on websites, mobile or wearable apps, and everything in between.

As customers develop a relationship with your product, usability tests will offer insights into what happens at each stage. Each test will contribute to an invaluable repository of insights into how your customers think about your product and what they value, because you’ll see the world through their eyes.

First Impressions

Watch what happens when customers first encounter your product. What gets their attention? Is anything confusing? Do they understand the marketing messages on your home page, and does the information resonate with them? Ultimately, do they feel compelled to explore more deeply?

Early Experiences

If you’ve communicated a positive initial impression and customers decide to explore your product, can they discover the features and functions that help get them up to speed? Does your interface provide clear, streamlined paths free of unnecessary instructions, distracting visual elements, or unneeded features or functionality? Finally, how well does your product help customers get the benefits they want, or even lead them to benefits they were unaware of?

Testing helps determine if customers find the terminology clear and jargon-free; whether the page and content is organized logically from their perspective; if processes—such as registration, checkout or upgrading—are efficient and easy to use; and if it’s clear how to cancel a process or navigate to a specific function or location.

Maturity

Over time, discovering shortcuts and advanced functionality will help mature customers do their jobs more quickly. You’ll want to test how these options are communicated and ensure that they address the needs of these customers without impacting the experience of other customers.

Unless you test with actual users, your product team won’t get a true perspective about what your product is like to use by the people who matter most: the users themselves. This may seem obvious, but in many organizations, approximate customers—such as salespeople—are sometimes used to review products. After all, they have a lot of customer contact. But salespeople don’t have the same motivations or context as customers. At best, this approach is risky. When you test with real users, usability tests ensure that all product stakeholders get a realistic, honest view of your product’s effectiveness.

If you have never watched a customer use your product, you might be in for a surprise. “Obvious” product assumptions may be challenged, or you might find that customers think differently about what value means to them. Whatever you discover, you’ll unearth information to develop products that are more likely to be ones that your customers value.

Real-World Usability Testing

The following real-world examples illustrate ways that usability testing can improve your product.

Discover new or unanticipated product features that improve product profitability.

An e-commerce website, selling specialist technical products upgraded its website design. During a usability test, the company was delighted that existing customers thought the new website design was a significant improvement. However, when customers were asked to buy particular products, several said they found it frustrating when an item was out of stock. While most users believed that alternative products were available, they weren’t sure what those were. It was a primary trigger for customer-service calls.

Based on initial testing results, the new site design was altered to include a “view similar products” option when the customer’s first choice was not available. Further testing demonstrated that the feature was an instant hit. The business increased sales, decreased the odds that customers would go to competitor sites to complete their orders, and reduced customer-service costs.

Validate assumptions to create more effective upsells and cross-sells.

A major bank was interested in selling additional products to new customers during the sign-up process. Earlier testing clearly showed that when customers signed up for a specific product, they weren’t interested in being marketed other products until they completed their primary task.

The bank’s designers developed several concepts to introduce other products after sign-up completion. One concept included visually rich banners and product feature boxes on the thank-you screen. The other was a series of check boxes and brief product descriptions to indicate “other products you might be interested in.”

Many on the business team were surprised to hear customers say that they found the plainer version to be a more compelling invitation to explore other products. The reason? It more naturally followed from the application process they had just completed. They perceived the visually rich version as “more obviously selling” and found it harder to focus on specific products because of the visual competition.

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About the Authors

  • Peter Hughes has spent 19 years conducting usability tests for industry-leading corporations and organizations such as JPMorgan Chase, MetLife, T. Rowe Price, Boeing, Honeywell, Hearst Media, Scholastic, the College Board, Nintendo and Tte Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
    He is founder and lead consultant at Ascest, where he coaches organizations on how to bring the usability testing skills they need in-house and squeeze the most out of those tests. He is passionate about teaching skills that help companies avoid building products no one wants, and harnessing those valuable resources to build exceptional products. Peter can be reached at peter@ascest.com.  


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