User Research & Usability Testing

by Luke Wroblewski June 30, 2004

A number of recent articles have focused on the utility of usability testing. On one hand Lane Becker from Adaptive Path claims that 90% of all Usability Testing is Useless (which sounds like a Jacob Nielsen statement to me) while others state that usability needs to better address design.

The other side believes usability is an integral part of design and that there are ways to Restore Confidence in Usability Results. Since this site is called Functioning Form, my position should be clear. Where I may diverge a bit is on the subject of user research vs. usability testing. Though the two terms are sometimes interchangeable, I see a fundamental difference. User research is proactive: it happens before you design and is the bread and butter of IDEO’s process. Usability Testing is mostly reactive and happens during (or after) the design phase.

A few years ago I redesigned an electronic exchange system. The antiquated interface was a command line solution that my client wanted to transition to a Web-based application. Prior to starting a design phase I was given a massive document that mapped out the daily lives of the system’s existing users minute by minute. To this date, I consider it the most valuable "requirements" document I have received for a project.

Seeing exactly how people were using the system, understanding their surroundings, and hearing their frustrations in their own words was invaluable. In addition to IDEO, a number of research companies are providing this kind of insight and helping projects kick-off with an emphasis on end users. Their methodology goes beyond traditional focus groups and cuts to the heart of user needs. Frank Ramierz recently shared the following list of firms in the user research space: Jump, KDA Research, InContext, SonicRim, and Doblin.