Usability testing is really design research

If I could do a bit of time travel I’d go back and change the term “usability testing”. Although the title is quite descriptive, it is ultimately too close to “user acceptance testing”. And the use of the testing word is definitely a problem.

The problem is that people associate testing (and in particular user acceptance testing) with something you do at the end of something. You test it to make sure it works.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered that basic misunderstanding of the purpose of a usability test.

Sure you can conduct a usability test at the end of a process on a finished product, but as any good usability practitioner will tell you, saving your usability testing until the end of a project when it is more costly and time-consuming to make changes doesn’t really make any sense.

Good usability practitioners will advise that you spend two-thirds of your usability budget before you are one-third of the way through your project. This way your usability insights can actually inform the way the product is designed and developed.

Early in a project, usability testing (and related research techniques) is a highly effective method of providing insights into questions that inform the design process.

I encourage you to think of usability testing as design research – and maybe you could also call it design research from now on so that our less well-informed colleagues don’t get confused.

Now where did I leave that tardis?

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10 responses to “Usability testing is really design research

  1. yep, i’m completely with you. I do what I can to avoid using the term ‘usability testing’ for anything but that thing that you do really close to launch (hopefully after you’ve done a whole load of ‘design research’ earlier in the piece).

    hear hear.

  2. Majed Alshamari

    Hi there,
    Well, the “Testing” term means working hard and even you tell the participants that is a test, they will try to perform a better although you do not want to measure them , you just want to measure the system itself. However, I agree up to a point that we should avoid using “Testing” term and replace with Design, evaluate, or others term.
    I have been working for a while in Usability field and I do dislike using “Testing” term.
    bye for now

  3. Agreed for sure. The term “Usability” nowadays carries a bit of a dusty clipboard feel with it. Add the word “Testing” and you’ve suddenly got a title that makes even the keenest listener glaze over.

    But the thing with “design research” – it doesn’t mention the users. Surely you’ve got to mention the users? :-)

    … “User Experience Research”. Hmm, it’s a bit of a mouthful.

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  5. simplerisbetter

    @Majed: I would always try to avoid using the term “testing” with research participants. After all the subject of the test is not the user but the application, website, etc.

    My posting was more directed at how we communicate to our non-usability practitioner clients/colleagues about what we are doing.

    @Harry: Although I agree (in part at least) with your objective, I completely agree with your conclusion – overly descriptive names can be a real problem.

    My vote is for Design Research!

  6. Adding to the chorus here, I completely agree. I find clients often say “usability test” when they actually mean “exploratory research” or (worse) “make sure I don’t get fired.”

    The notion of the “test” is definitely the problem. Design research is my vote!

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  8. simplerisbetter

    Whether usability testing is simply a part of a number of other design research activities, or a discrete activity (for me) comes down to factors such as the objectives of the test, whether you are actually redesigning a site or simply evaluating it for potential redesign, etc.

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  10. Well said, Iain. I expressed similar concerns in my recent post Stop calling it usability testing. While there were some that debated the idea, via blog comments and emails, I think that if you really mean “usability testing” and accept the connotations that are likely to come attached to that phrase, then that’s fine, use it. But if not, then calling it “design research” as you suggest, is a far better approach.

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