The delicate balance between expert analysis and usability test

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How to combine listening and analysis activities to improve people’s experiences.


Listening to people is the foundation of our approach: but how can the experience gained in the field be combined with the skills of our professionals, gained through study? Today we find out by combining two activities that we carry out with our research and UX design areas and understanding the relationship that binds them: expert analysis and usability test.

Usability test

The complementary nuances of expert analysis and usability test

We are increasingly projected into a world that thinks in polarized opposites, more or less voluntarily ignoring the fact that there are many alternatives in between. To cite a few examples: black or white, vegan or carnivore, right or left… But there are many shades of gray, we can opt for a reduction in meat consumption and there is a suffix center-…

The question therefore arises spontaneously: are there intermediate nuances even between two concepts such as expert analysis and usability test? Well yes: these two activities in some ways can be considered poles apart, but they are complementary from a functional point of view.

First of all, let’s briefly review what these two activities are that concern user experience.

Expert analysis: how the skills of professionals can improve people’s user experience

Expert analysis is the activity in which researchers and user experience experts put themselves in the shoes of the people who use a given product or service, physical or digital, foreseeing and identifying the potential usability barriers and the missing meeting points between offer and real wishes and needs of users. In this case, therefore, we have a context in which the previous knowledge and experience gained by researchers and UX experts “fall” on a product.

Borrowing a terminology very dear to neuroscience, we can define this process “top-down”, precisely from top to bottom: the brain “decides” that something must be done in a certain way on logic dictated by memory and attention.

Usability test: when people provide information to improve their own experiences

However, another aspect must also be considered: we are part of a sensory traction world, where every social, physical, cognitive interaction is partly guided by external stimuli, which involve our senses and which generate a signal also directed towards that same brain that “gives orders”.

We have just described bottom-up processes, from bottom to top, from the periphery to the processing center. This type of process is the perfect description of what happens during a usability test. In fact, the latter is nothing more than an activity of collecting external stimuli, coming from people (which, in our parallelism, we can define as “sentient sensory organs”). They, through their experiences and their interaction with the object of analysis (be it a site, an app or an object) are able to send innumerable signals to researchers.

Expert analysis and usability test: the right balance between expertise and listening to improve people’s experiences

So why talk about the balance between expert analysis and usability test? Of “average” between these two activities instead of “sum”? Why not take both bags of information and pour them seamlessly into a cauldron of insights and redesign processes?

Because we are flawed, like our brain processes. Or rather, we are equipped with filters that are able on the one hand to mitigate or even inhibit, on the other hand to emphasize, signals, memories and emotions. If we paid attention to every single sensory stimulus we would go crazy after a few seconds. If, on the contrary, we didn’t let ourselves be guided by external signals, we would be computers detached from the outside world.

In other words: if we did not mitigate the information coming from users during the tests with the previous knowledge of professionals, dictated by training and experience, we would have a salad of often subjective changes and suggestions, calibrated on the individual, unattainable and not to be implemented.

If, on the contrary, we ignored the precious information provided by people and concentrated only on our knowledge, we would be making the exact same mistake in the opposite direction: taking into account only one point of view, a priori, subjective and presumptuous.

Apple: a real case where listening and competence meet

If Apple had paid attention only to its users, today we would have MacBook Pros still equipped with VGA output, a dozen USB type A ports and an illuminated apple that means more thickness.

If Apple had ignored feedback from its customer base, however, we’d have lines of computers that ignore people’s needs. Indeed, to be honest it unfortunately happened, in one case: the MacBook Pro lineup 2016 – 2020, which forced users to go around with more adapters than fingers (Apple MacBook).

The balance was instead synthesized, in the new MacBook Pro line from 2021 onwards, where the logic of business and design met the needs, this time listened to, of people: a wider variety of ports, a less delicate keyboard, a thicker laptop that runs cooler, and more.

The Latin mantra reads “in medio stat virtus”, virtue lies in the middle, in the delicate balance, therefore, between what we know or presume to know and what can always surprise us and which evidently needs someone to tell us speak spontaneously and genuinely.

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2 December 2022 Luca Artesini

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TAG: UX and UI usability test experience design product and service design