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“Animal” testing is a good thing

People are animals too:)

On Monday Apr 30, USA Today’s cover story was about a family who agreed to be videotaped and studied by Microsoft staffers in order to see how people used Microsoft’s soon-to-be released Vista (now available, of course), what ticked them off about it, what they liked, and so on.

Read the article to see how hard Microsoft is working to try and make their software easier to use, and quite frankly, better.

Why? If you are in the software business, there’s nothing more educational than watching your clients try to use your software. Sure, being on the tech support line is a close second, but the sheer agony of vicariously trying to get the user to click that button that to you is oh so obvious is well….flippin’ painful.

BUT it is seriously powerful, and that power means several very important things:

  • More, easier sales. An app that people can just sit down in front of and start using without help is an app that’s easier to sell. When someone’s first experience is “DAMMIT, how do you use this thing?!?!?!”, getting from there to a purchase can be tough, don’t you imagine?
  • Less tech support. Your app is easier to use. More intuitive.
  • BETTER tech support. Better questions because the painfully obvious ones (to you) that aren’t so painfully obvious to everyone else have already been taken care of. Better support because there’s less of the stuff caused by less than ideal design decisions that were discovered during your testing.
  • Fewer releases. Because you catch the silly stuff early in the game, and fewer people got to see it, there’s just not much about this that can be considered a negative whether you ask your end users, your support staff or the people in fulfillment.

This past weekend, Sherman Hu told a similar story about his WordPress tutorial videos. He said his focus when making the videos was to enable his father in law to create a blog. He recognized that the average person isn’t a megageek and needs some baseline help in getting started. That’s what the tutorials are all about. He includes a few free videos and if you want to learn more after he gets you started, you can subscribe to the paid portion of his WordPress tutorial video site.

Your audience might not be the same as Sherman’s, but the technique is just as powerful.

Human behavior is predictable if you’re a psychologist. Sort of. Even if you know what you think you know, testing by watching a user will show you facts, not guesses.

Testing with “real live people” isn’t just for software people. I’m sure you are aware that big consumer product corporations do this sort of testing on everything from steak knives to minivans.

Why wouldn’t you?

Back in early March, a friend of mine tested a brand new presentation about a pretty geeky (but non-computer related) topic in front of a group of people who weren’t customers, and weren’t technical people – at least not in his arena. The result? He found that he needed to turn down the techno-speak even more than he expected in order to “keep” the audience, otherwise he risked not only losing them, but his credibility as well.

Test your website. Test your forms and other paperwork. Test the arrangement of products in your store. Until you do, you just don’t know how good or bad your stuff is, nor how much better it can get or how much money you’re losing by having less than optimal design.

TEST as much as you can, with real live “animals”. People, that is.