The Usability Study is the Swiss Army Knife of UX Research

At the core of User Experience (UX) research lies the usability study. This is a one-on-one session where the moderator has the participant complete tasks on an interface to uncover opportunities for improvement. What makes it so vital is the numerous ways we can use a usability study format to answer different types of questions.

What is a usability format?

In a traditional usability study, we watch what the participants do, listen to what they say, and ask probing questions where appropriate to uncover insights that help drive the design forward. The goal is to focus on the performance of the interface, and determine: does it perform in a way that the user expects it to?

But the usability format goes far beyond that one question. By the format, I mean the process of:
1. watching what participants do,
2. listening to what they say, and
3. asking probing questions.

These three steps can be applied to do far more than just find whether the interface performs as expected.

Alternative usability
You have lots of questions to answer as you work on any design project. A usability format can answer more of those than you might think.

Perhaps you’re still deciding on what features and functionality an app should have in the next release. For this, we could conduct a usefulness study. A usefulness study looks and feels like a usability study, except it concentrates not on the workflow, but on the content and features. We still have participants perform tasks on the interface – this sets the context for the probing questions. But instead of concentrating on the usability of the interface, the questions aim to uncover its overall utility.

For example, we might ask:

• What aspects of the interface do you find the most useful?
• How do the features of this product compare to competitors?
• How does the order in which information is displayed compare to your expectations?
• Which of these tools would you use most often?
• What is a tool that you wish that you had?
• What is the difference between these two places in the interface?
• What content would you expect to see here?
• What seems out of place?
• How would this feature impact your work today?

This is a great type of study to conduct early in a project to help set the design trajectory. It gives designers insights into how an existing interface could evolve to be more useful to target users. Once an updated design is available, then you can follow up with a traditional usability study, to see if the interaction flows as the user expects.

The desirability study is another variant of the usability study format. This type of study aims to understand how participants feel about the design(s). Participants carry out tasks to set the context, but the questions seek to gather participants’ emotional feedback. Additionally, tools such as Microsoft Product Reaction Cards, PrEmo, or other emotional surveys are often used after all of the tasks are completed. A desirability study is useful when deciding between different visual designs – it helps stakeholders with the emotional aspect of their decision.

Why usability?
Recruiting is expensive, and you want to maximize the amount of data you can extract from each second you have with a participant. Using a usability study-like format to explore different questions via different methods can be a very effective and efficient way to collect actionable insights from target users. This has proven to be the case many times over during our client work here at Mad*Pow.

How else can you use the usability format? Email me at [email protected] and let’s talk!


By: Dan Berlin

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Contributed by:
Dan Berlin VP, Experience Research   Contact Dan

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