Just my thoughts

What usability tests can't tell you

Excuse the headline. To be clear, I do think that usability tests are very valuable. But often times they provide little data beyond what you are testing—for instance, the labeling of the primary navigation. Yes, seasoned testers can often times extrapolate large amounts of observational data, but sometimes the really niche features of a Web site aren't so easily discovered. Users seldom provide ancillary ideas for features they may need. Instead the idea for a feature usually only occurs to a user when they needs it. So, when a feature pops up for me at exactly the time I need it, in exactly the place I need it, to me it means somebody really thought the problem through, perhaps even cared about me a little. To me it says: "hey, we want to make your life easier". All usability experts focus on the user first. That is, quite simply, what we sign up to do. As such, we often refrain from  "feature-itis"—defined as adding features for the sake of having more functionality. Additional features often times do little more than round out a sell-sheet of product benefits, hardly ever benefiting the user. But there are many times when a well conceived feature can pay off not only for the user, but for the service provider as well. And I must correct myself, when discussing this blog post with a colleague of mine, Ernie Bello, he rightfully pointed out that it's not the feature itself, but the execution of the feature that makes it usable or not. As an example, I had purchased a couple songs from the iTunes Music Store by Canadian artist Sass Jordan. I know, I know, it's 2009, but I just have this thing for Canadian rock from 2 decades ago. After listening to the two songs I had purchased (about 10 times), I decided to get a couple more. Of course, now I was regretting that I hadn't purchased the whole album and saved a little money. That's when I discovered this:

Example from the iTune Music Store Note how when returning to the album from which I have already bought a couple songs, I am prompted to complete my album. It's clear, obvious, and exactly where it should be. I am sure that many of you will point out that this is also a benefit for Apple, and that may be the case. But the point is, the very feature I wanted, existed when I needed it, and where I needed it—even thought I didn't expect it to be there. My point is that I doubt a usability test would have found the need for this feature. If I were a test subject with a task to buy a song, I would not have thought to tell a usability tester that it would be great to have a feature to complete an album, just in case I change my mind in the future. I didn't even think about it as a feature until I actually needed it. But somebody thought about it for me, and thought about how I could use it. And yes, with that feature in place, it can be tested and can be validated. What little features have you noticed or even created that have really made a big difference? Leave me your comments...
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