I did something very brave and very scary recently. No, I didn’t skydive, bungy jump or ski – I sent out chapters of my card sorting book to colleagues to review. And in doing so, I realised something very important about usability testing.
The reason it was so scary to get review feedback on my book was that I was sending out something quite personal and the people I sent it to are people I respect. That was an insanely scary thing to do. I didn’t know how good the book was and was putting myself in a situation where my peers could have thought ‘I thought she was smart, but what’s this rubbish? Maybe she’s not as smart as I thought’.
But I knew that the book would become better with input from smart people. And I knew that I wasn’t making a token effort – I was genuinely interested in the feedback and would do something with it. So I took a deep breath and sent it out.
I got a lot of good feedback and my colleagues were honest enough to tell me the things that didn’t work as well as those that did. The feedback was constructive, nicely balanced and didn’t make me feel like I was silly. I feel good about myself, and know what to do to make the book better.
How does this fit with usability testing? In the past year or so I’ve been on the receiving end of some usability tests of my designs and have had the chance to read some done for a client.
Universally, they failed to acknowledge how hard it is to put something up for critique, and to respect the expertise and hard work of the client team. A few reports included a short list of ‘things that worked well’ (that felt like a token), and a long list of things that didn’t go well. Most reports I read included nothing about the good aspects, and no comments acknowledging the challenge of the situation. None commented that the good things are often invisible and the bad things stood out. And large parts of the reports reported on tiny, trivial things wrapped up in the guise of ‘usability problems’. And the recommendations…well, i won’t go there today.
If usability folks want to get their contribution acknowledged and become more involved in projects, they must start to think harder about the human aspects of their work – not on the user’s side, but on the client’s. They have to get off their high horse and acknowledge that loads of hard work has been done and significant problems have been successfully resolved. They can’t continue to report failures without reporting successes. And they have to identify the difference between observations and genuine problems.
It takes a brave person to put up their work for critique. Respect their skills, tell them what is great, and be constructive about the things that aren’t.