Creating the Ultimate User Experience

Usability testing image by Bryan Lin

Written by Mariana Seda, Technology Services
Illustration by Bryan Lin, Graphic Design '20

This is part one of a two-part series about Technology Services Usability and Accessibility Testing Services.

User testing can be the difference between digital products that people want to come back to and that they find useful, and those that users abandon because they are hard to use. Technology Services has provided usability testing and consulting on campus since 2008, and it has helped improve the University of Illinois home webpage, the NetID Claim service, and the Webstore interface, among many other important products and services. Usability is a key factor to creating the ultimate digital experience, and it is increasingly at the forefront of discussions about new products and technologies.
 

The User is Always Right

Usability is exactly what it sounds like: how usable is this program, software, interface, website, or digital platform? Is it intuitive for the user? Easy to navigate? Clear in its instructions? What works, and what doesn't work? Usability is increasingly important as technology becomes more pervasive and complex.

Usability testing is the process for evaluating usability and providing suggestions to create a user-centric digital experience. Ideally, usability consultants team up with developers and designers in the process of creating a product to ensure it is user-friendly and optimized for increased productivity and satisfaction for the user. It is always best to approach the development of any system with usability considerations built in from the beginning rather than tacked on as an afterthought once a product is nearly complete.

“User testing is important because we, as designers, already know what end message we are trying to deliver,” explains Cordelia Geiken, Manager of Quality Assurance & Assessment at Technology Services. As a developer, “you might forget to include important instructions because they seem second-nature to you. So having a usability consultant evaluate your program is like having someone proofread your paper.”

Technology Services offers usability consulting services to anyone on campus whether they have a website that needs to be updated, or they are developing a brand-new application or interface.
 

There’s a Lab for That

There are several testing methods usability consultants will use to evaluate a product's quality and user experience. Technology Services houses the usability lab in the Digital Computer Laboratory (DCL) building, which is very convenient for all the Technology  Services staff working there who develop and manage products and need this service regularly.

“Having someone sit down and actually go through the experience of using your product can be incredibly helpful in evaluating what is working and what is not,” says Geiken. “Where is the jargon? Where are the missing instructions that someone who is from another country wouldn’t automatically assume? Which words have different meanings for different audiences and need to be changed?” These are just a few reasons usability testing is so important.
 

Usability Evaluation 101

The best method for testing a specific product depends on the product and stage of development. Three main types of usability evaluations happen in the DCL Usability lab:

1. Computer-based - This is best used when a finished product, such as a website, needs improvement or redesign. This is a form of task-based testing where evaluators ask the user to complete certain tasks on an interface and see how they go about it, if they fumble and where, and how successful they are in completing the task. Tasks range from simple, as in finding the “About Us” page, to more complex such as setting up an image gallery or creating and publishing a recipe post. Special software captures users' facial expressions, audio, and computer screen to allow for further review.

2. Paper Prototype - This method is ideal for testing a design before it is created or coded. An evaluator presents users with paper “sketches” of a product design and asks them to find certain buttons and “click” (point with their finger) where they think they should in order to get the results they need. Developers can then make quick and easy revisions without having to restructure designs, graphics or coding. Paper prototypes are extremely flexible, cost effective, and an excellent means of evaluating page layout and design before implementation.

3. Card Sorts - This type of testing is best for creating navigation and information architecture. An evaluator divides a product into individual pieces of content written on index cards. The user then organizes or sorts the cards into groups or layouts that make sense to them.

After testing, the usability consultant recommends product changes to the developer or project manager.
 

Usability Consulting = A User-Focused Experience

Usability practices can reduce costs by ensuring the best possible product from the outset. Fewer modifications, less tech support, and fewer calls to the help desk are all outcomes of usability evaluations. Testing can be done very inexpensively, especially when executed from the beginning of a project.

“It’s always worth the time to conduct usability testing,” proclaims Geiken. “When people say there is no time to do usability in the project, I argue there’s no time not to do it. You will save so much rework, time and money if you plan this into the process from the beginning.

To learn more about usability consulting services available through Technology Services, visit https://techservices.illinois.edu/services/usability-consulting/types-of-usability-consulting

To inquire about usability consulting services email: usabilityconsulting@illinois.edu.