Tracking the Evolution of Usability Testing

Usability Testing is a User-Centred Design process that evaluates a digital product or service by testing it with real Users. It is not to be misunderstood as market or purely qualitative research, which is gathering only opinions about an object or document. Instead it involves observing how well people successfully complete tasks with a product or service. Rather than showing a person an object and only asking their opinion, they have to complete a series of tasks. This allows for the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data.

A photograph of a usability test. The user is using an iphone while a camera attached records their movements. There is also a desktop in the background showing the users face and live video.

Where It Began

Usability Testing is quickly becoming recognised as an integral step in the design process, but it isn’t as new as you might think. In fact, it has its roots in the study of ergonomics during the early 20th century. Extensive research during World War I and World War II was done by designers to build weapons and machinery that were more efficient, easier to operate, reduced fatigue and ultimately resulted in more victories. Quite a morbid reality for the roots of Usability Testing. After the wars the benefits and study of ergonomics slowly permeated into the corporate world and eventually reached into most industries.

A diagram showing the extensive Usability research into the creation of cars. The diagram features two characters and many diagrams and measurements.

The Birth of Usability Testing

During the 1980’s, computers became more affordable and began appearing in average households. Many people had little to no training on how to use a computer, but software designers who created operating systems assumed their Users were familiar with technical terms and system designs. For the everyday person using a computer was associated with frustration and anxiety. They felt stupid and intimidated when asked to perform a task. This quickly became unacceptable and User-Centred Design became a solution for the design of software for untrained professionals.

A photograph of a man using a computer in the 1980's.

Many experts emerged in the field of Usability Testing during this period and published books such as ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman and ‘Human Factors and Usability” by B. Shackel. Shackel defined Usability as a function of efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. These two books marked the beginning of the modern Usability profession.

In 2000, Steve Krug’s ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ was published, bringing Usability Testing to the masses. It was easy to digest and explained how to implement Usability Testing methods. Still during this time there were only a handful of organisations like Apple, that were implementing Usability Testing and proper User-Centred Design principles.

In the 1990s, Usability Testing got a couple of improvements. Progress in technology made remote testing possible. This was an important development because it allowed researchers to gather data in places they couldn’t physically go. There were also new prototyping methods in which to evaluate designs, such as paper prototyping. Designs were being developed quickly by coming up with a concept, sketching it out and creating something that was testable. Nowadays, as design and development teams are becoming more agile many companies are starting to utilise low-fidelity prototyping and evaluation. This has led to finding and solving problems much earlier in the design process. If you’d like to learn more about Usability Testing methods check out our blog post on Guerilla Usability Testing.

Usability Testing Today

Usability Testing continued to evolve as designers and software developers realised they weren’t the targeted User.  Designers shouldn’t use their own opinions and assumptions of what they think other people will like to use. In reality they are just thinking about what they like and prefer to interact with based off of their own personal experiences. Instead, it’s better to Usability Test your product on real Users who lose nothing by truthfully telling you about their experience with your product or service.

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