Monday, June 05, 2006

red diamond Experience as a software usability tester

Two weeks ago I read a post on a software contractor mailing list, seeking candidates for usability testing of a government related software. The company was local and there was a reasonable compensation promised but most of all I was curious to see how such things are done. So I responded with an e-mail.

Tony Brown from SoftPlex responded promptly with a short questionnaire to test if I was a match for the software they wanted to test. I answered the few questions and seemed to get to the next round with a couple of more questions. I made the cut and was invited to a session at Monday morning 8am in Boston Downtown.

I arrived ahead of time at the testing facility, where I met Tony Brown in person. I was led to a room with a long table and a laptop and a few video cameras. The room was also equipped with a huge one sided mirror, the kinds you know from police movies in the interrogation room. I was asked to sign a form, consenting with being watched and filmed for the purposes of the the study. Then I was introduced what I should test and that it was the usability of the software under scrutiny, not my ability to succeed or fail. I had to fulfill a sequence of tasks on a website, mostly finding information. I was asked to speak aloud my thoughts and reactions.

For about an hour I tried to fulfill task, mostly assume you are looking for information about subject A. Where would you look and let us know when you think you found it or gave up. The atmosphere was comfortable and I didn't feel intimidated by being watched. It was funny though to talk all you thoughts aloud.

After the session finished I asked Tony how many candidates he uses to make such a test. He replied that usually after 4 to 5 a pattern emerges that yields useful information. He said typical costs of such a usability study would be between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on the complexity of the questions and if one rents such a facility with the double sided mirror and cameras or does it at the clients premise with less equipment.

I can definitely say it was an interesting experience and I learned a bit about the value of usability testing. Based on my experience I'm heavily inclined to use his services, when the time is ripe to make my current project consumer ready.

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