Usability – Does it Exist or is it Just a ‘Theory’?

March 12, 2009

Have you ever heard a non-technical computer say that they are having computer problems whether it be viruses, pop-up porn ads, slowdowns, or network problems? Often they do not know where it came from. Hearing this have you immediately thought, “I never have any of those types of problems. This person must just not know how to use their computer.”?

As developers we don’t have these problems because we understand how a computer should work. We know what will get us into trouble and can easily identify warning signs. We also troubleshoot ourselves out of situations. In short, regardless of how usable the system, mentally we understand what needs to be done to get what we need.

Is this how it should work? Certainly not. We cannot take users for granted, hoping that they understand how to use our application. A user interface should handle system and application commands that a user wishes to run. If our users knew they had to call process A, click button B five times, and cache the response before the desired result would occur, there would be no need for usability (or us). Users would be smarter, and perfectly capable of troubleshooting their own bugs.

Such a perfect world does not exist and it is our responsibility to ensure that the software we release to our users doesn’t have any potential holes or pesky bugs in it. We must focus on making our applications more user friendly so that it is obvious when they perform an action that endangers their computer, or that those actions never occur in the first place. As developers how do we do that?

Usability Testing in Progress


So what can be done? Do we preach that usability testing is necessary before production? No. That music falls on deaf ears. Besides, who wants to give up valuable project time or money to test an application that is already behind? Even when usability testing is scheduled and performed, there is such a short amount of time left in the development schedule to fix any recommended changes.

My recommendation is that usability testing should come as an iterative and cyclical process throughout the development life cycle. It should not be considered usability, but instead usability development. Team members should be aware of it from the point requirements are defined to the point that the final piece of code is written.

This should be done by pushing the below responsibilities onto all team members:

  • Do not let anyone test their own code for the final round of testing
  • Concentrate on understanding the needs of users early
  • Perform early and continuous testing. This can be done through peer developer testing or lead developer testing core functionality