If you've never participated in a usability test, the most important thing to know is that it's not really a test at all. You're not expected to perform in a certain way: there are no right or wrong answers, there is no grade at the end, and there is no pressure to perform. Usability researchers like me depend on the participants who come in to help make the products we work on easy to use, pleasant, and convenient. The way we do that is by watching everyday people try to use our products. So if the product is difficult to use, it's our responsibility to fix it. Blame the designer! not the user.
Here are some things to expect:
Expect to be welcomed
When you come to our offices, you can expect to be greeted at the door. We will go into an office that will allow us to work in privacy. Joining us in our session, we may have one or two other observers, who are there to help with note-taking and recording equipment. You can expect to be made comfortable - we will offer you a refreshment, and a place to sit.
Expect your confidentiality to be respected
Because we may be working with designs that have not yet been released to the market, we will ask you to sign a "non-disclosure agreement." This document is your word that you won't speak with our competitors about new designs. We also respect your privacy, and we will ask you to sign a video/audio recording release form. We will often create video or audio recordings during the session. These recordings are like "high-fidelity notes" for us - we want to be sure that we can remember every possible important detail of what you say. We use these recordings when we analyze the results of a set of usability tests, and they won't be shown or disclosed to any external audiences. So don't worry - you will never find a video of yourself trying to use our software on Youtube!
A lot of what happens during a usability test is conversation...about you. We will ask you about the ordinary things in your everyday life. It might seem strange for us to be interested in things you find mundane, but it's knowing about these details that allow us to design products that help you accomplish your daily tasks, make your life easier, or inspire you in some small way. Also, remember that there are no "right" answers. Don't worry about hurting our feelings if you don't like our company or have never heard of it - we *love* honest answers best of all.
Expect to be asked to "think aloud"
We haven't yet found a way to read minds, or look into people's brains, to figure out what they are thinking. We will ask you to "think aloud" as you try to do something with a piece of software or other prototype. This might seem strange, but it's just like talking to yourself as you do something. Here's an example of someone trying out a website: "Ok, I'm going to go to www.website.com now. The first thing I see is this big banner across the top. I'm not really sure what it's for. Now I'm going to click on this link. Hm. I didn't go where I thought I would. I was expecting to go to the shopping cart. This text is too small. How do I go back in the menu? etc."
Expect to have to use your imagination
Often when we put together a usability test, the designs we'll have you look at won't have the same level of fidelity as they would "off the shelf". In fact, sometimes we may even have you pretend to interact with paper print-outs! So, you'll have to use your imagination sometimes to polish out the rough edges, and not let small imperfections get in the way too much. Another way you might have to use your imagination is through putting yourself into fictional scenarios. We might ask you to pretend you're trying to do one task or another, for instance, "Let's say you were interested in finding out about product x. Please interact with the website to demonstrate how you might do that."
Other stuff to expect
Sometimes we'll ask you to fill out a short survey, help us brainstorm a layout, or do a fun creative task using markers and paper, or sticky notes. It depends on what project we're working on at the moment.
Expect to be compensated for your time
We value your time and input. The way we show you how much we appreciate your taking time out of the day to come and share your thoughts with us is by compensating you with cash, or a cash-equivalent credit card. Typically we compensate participants about $75 for an hour-and-a-half of their time.
And that's it! We've heard before from participants that they've had lots of fun coming in, and we keep a list of great folks who are interested in coming back another time. Please contact me if you have any other questions about what to expect!