case study

Testing before you design

In interaction design, we talk a lot about user testing. After we have put together some rough prototypes, we like to put them in front of our users, give them some scenarios, and observe them attempt to perform some predetermined tasks. Something that I think is often overlooked however is observing the user using their current system. Most of the time the applications that we are designing are replacing current systems—even if the “system” isn’t a software application and it is paramount that we understand it.

I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Nic observing some of the employees from the Finance and Records Department yesterday using a system that manages check disbursements. Several times while we were there I thought about how much we were learning and how grateful I was for the opportunity to be there, but then stopped as I came to the word opportunity. Understanding the user’s needs and workflow should not be a luxury. How are we supposed to design an application that improves upon their current system if we don’t understand the current system?

Especially, I want to point out the user’s workflow and pain points. Just understanding what the current system does is not enough. We need to know how the user users the system. How does the way that user A uses the system compare or contrast from the way that user B uses the system? What are their frustrations? What is the number one thing that they would change if they were a programmer and could alter the app? What steps (mechanical or mental) do they take to get through each of the process that they perform regularly?

We must observe their environment and how they interact with the software physically. This step is overlooked a lot in the pre-design user testing since we are so focused on defining functional requirements. What equipment does the user have? Where do they sit? What equipment other than their computer is required to complete their tasks? What fine motor skills are required? How does this task fit into the rest of the tasks that they are required to perform?

Interaction design involve more than how the user users the software. The system is greater than the software. We must be efficiency engineers. The design solution must take into consideration the user’s environment. Our job is greater than making using the application an efficient and pleasant experience; we have succeeded if we have improved their entire workflow.

posted by Wade Preston Shearer on Saturday, Feb 07, 2009
tagged with user-testing, interaction design