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Why I don’t offer a usability testing service

Monday, January 28th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I reworked the business part of my website – I had to move it to a new host and remove some content (and it really needed some polish). So I decided not only to think about re-doing the website, but to re-think what I’m doing with my business.

One of the things I needed to sort out was the types of service I offer – I want to focus narrowly enough in my area of expertise to attract clients who I suit, without looking like so much of a specialist that good people pass over me. So of course I decided to focus on design training, IA and interaction design – these are my core offering, they are what I’m good at, and what I want to be doing right now.

So I had a page on my old website about usability testing (I’m finally getting to the point of the story). I automatically brought it over and added it to my list of services. I did it because I thought it was just something that a business like mine should offer.

But when I came to write the content, and convince you why you should hire me to help you with usability testing, things started to unravel. In writing it, I realised that I actually didn’t want to offer a usability testing service.

I thought about that some and realised why I don’t want to do standalone usability testing:

  1. Usability testing is easy to learn and easy to conduct. Yes, really. I’d prefer to teach a team how to do it themselves.
  2. Because it is so easy, it really is silly paying my rate to do usability testing. That money would be better used teaching other people to do it.
  3. Usability testing really should be an integral part of a user-centred process, and happen informally (and sometimes formally) throughout a project. For most projects, getting an outsider to do this means money, which means it isn’t done as often as possible. Guess what – I’d prefer to teach someone to do it themselves.
  4. I hate providing recommendations without knowing the design context, the challenges, the constraints of a project. I have seen too many usability test results that offer dumb, shallow recommendations that aren’t actionable because of the real constraints in a project.
  5. I don’t mind running a solid test and providing detailed outcomes with no recommendations; but that’s not worth me spending my time on (I’m a designer and want to design), and not worth you spending the money on.

So lots of people are going to be upset with me about that, so I will acknowledge that there are some caveats:

  • Usability testing is easy, but also easy to really stuff up. But for most of the types of tests I get asked to do as a consultant (mid-cyle to pre-release basic validation testing) it is not life or death.
  • If you really need to do a detailed research-style study into something, hiring a consultant can be a good investment. I’m talking about fairly shallow validation testing.
  • I do believe in the value of usability testing – I’d just prefer to do it on projects where I know the design constraints and issues and where I (or my small, close team) use it to help us tweak a design.

So I now don’t offer a standalone usability testing service – and don’t feel the loss at all. But I will teach others and will test on my own projects…and I’m comfortable with that.