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Usability Testing Pays Off in Surprising Ways

Atomic’s been formalizing our usability testing approach for the last year or so. This is one part of the broader initiative and long-term effort of integrating design with our agile development process. We’ve sent Atoms to the Norman Nielsen Group Usability Week training, had brown bags on the subject, bought some books, tested prototypes, and, most importantly, run formal usability testing sessions for several projects. The results have been very encouraging: a little formality and rigor appear to go a long way. Our apps are better, and I believe we’ve ultimately saved money for our clients by validating usability before launch.

I was struck this afternoon by a benefit I hadn’t anticipated while listening to a brown bag on a recent testing session from another team’s project. Usability testing is the first, and sometimes only time that makers actually see real people using their product. As a maker myself, I realize how important this is.

I think closing the loop and letting makers observe real users with their applications matters for a variety of reasons. There’s the obvious purpose being served — how might we improve the application? But there’s also a deeper connection being created. I have to believe that as makers, we will be more empathetic with users because of this connection. I guess there’s a sense of pride (or embarrassment, as the case may be) that comes with seeing our products, into which we’ve put so much time and creativity, in the hands of their intended users.

We prefer to do these tests with our customers present. We’ve found the shared experience makes it a lot easier to debrief and decide on concrete actions to take. But here again, there’s a deeper purpose served. The connection between our customer and his or her team is a strong one. Watching together as the product we’ve so closely collaborated on meets the real world for the first time closes another loop, provides an important emotional pay off for both customer and team, and contributes to the mutual trust that’s so important in this complex relationship.