Usability test: what it really is and why it has nothing to do with contingent use, but with people’s experiences.

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Usability as a degree of satisfaction, well-being and people’s gratification

Usability is a beautiful concept, more than the term and its use, or abuse, make us think.

The word comes from the Latin uti use, simple then.

Not really, because the meaning of this term is often neglected or reduced to its daily meaning of using something, the habit of the act or being the usual thing itself.

We are interested, however, on the one hand the unusual, what is usually not caught. The unusual is the rare, the unusual, what usually does not happen or is not understood, is not done or is not seen. In finding the value beyond common use, it will be possible to rediscover the beauty and the extraordinary nature of the ordinary: the unusual is in fact one of the forms of wonder. And the wonder of things or in things is what makes the experience memorable.

On the other hand, we are even more interested in it, or we want to stigmatize it as drift in our eyes at least, the fact that in the jargon of web marketing the word usability is often associated with terms such as purchase, sale or conversion.

When we talk about usability, or in our tests, it is not what we are anxious about and we would like to see the broader understanding of the term giving breath and much more interesting discussions.

The ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 9241-11: 1998 standard comes to our aid, then updated by ISO 9241-210: 2010, which defines usability as:

“The degree to which a product can be used by particular users to achieve certain objectives with effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction in a specific context of use”

Well in the meantime the definition speaks of degree and therefore makes it a measure, then introduces the objectives and the specific context, but above all users.

Fortunately, this definition helps us to understand that usability, especially on the web, is a property external to the product-site since it concerns people.


Effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction, with a single objective: the re-connection.

The question gets complicated, or fortunately expands, in the definitions of these three very important words: effectiveness, efficiency is satisfaction. Words that no longer concern so much the code of the page or the strategy adopted to achieve certain objectives, as the interaction between a user, his individual characteristics (passions, beliefs, expectations, etc.), and that site, but would be worth for any interface or artifact, even non-digital.

In fact we could consider, and we have been doing this for more than 10 years now, these words as attributes of user interactions and for that reason measurable with people through a quali-quantitative approach we have defined as WITH and who uses mixed methods.

If we reread the sentence then we can consider:

  •   Effectiveness, such as precision and completeness with which users achieve specific objectives;
  •   Efficiency, as resources used in relation to the precision and completeness with which users achieve specific objectives;
  •   Satisfaction, as freedom from the discomfort and positive attitude with which users reach specific objectives through the use of the product.

In this context we talk about usability in terms of effective and satisfactory interaction for the user both in terms of efficiency and in terms of well-being. Usability therefore aims to economize the user’s cognitive effort, proposing artifacts or interfaces that are easy to understand, to learn, to use, to remember, to avoid or to make errors recoverable and therefore to gratify the user.

The main problem of usability, or if you want our job of re-connection, arises when the designer model (i.e. the ideas of these regarding the operation of the product, which transfers on the design of the product itself) does not coincide with the end user model (or the idea that the user conceives of the product and its operation).

The degree of usability rises proportionally to the approach of the two models (designer model, and user model).

It is this convergent vision that led us to define ourselves as TSW, that is The Sixth W, which is the WITH and to talk about listening model and of re-connection.


The usability test and the gold of experience

So far we have tried to clarify the meaning of the term usability, what it really could mean and what is associated with it. Now let’s try to see how this usability, read as a degree of interaction, can be measured in a test. A test that, as we understood from the previous definition, will have to involve users, that is people, through structured methods in a specific context, which is a place, as neutral as possible for it to be close to that of the experience itself.

Perhaps before we understand what a test is, it’s worth talking about this experience, which is the real core of our work.

For experience of use, or User Experience, of course what a person feels when using a product, a system or a service. The experience of use concerns the experiential and affective aspects, the attribution of meaning and value connected to the possession of a product and the interaction with it.

The user experience has a subjective nature because it concerns the thoughts and feelings of an individual towards a system; moreover, it is dynamic as it changes over time as circumstances change.

This is why we can speak of an experience that is transformed and contaminated with other experiences, given that the user experience includes all the user’s emotions, his beliefs, preferences, psychological and physical reactions, behaviors and actions that occur first, during and after use.

The user experience therefore comes out of the contingent use and comes to embrace the anticipation, the planning, the memory of such use, the desire of the experience of interaction, the projection of this experience on the processes of construction of the identity of the subject.

Let’s now see what happens and which variables or processes are involved in a usability test. Test, stands for ‘reactive essay’, from ancient French test ‘vase’ (used by alchemists to test gold), from the Latin ‘vase’.

The same word test can make us discover an interesting meaning, that of an essay, in the sense of evaluating or measuring characteristics (testing gold means evaluating the characteristics of the material with chemical-physical procedures) and a vessel that contains and brings values.

In our tests the object of analysis is moved from use (as an event) to the user, because the person with his own experiences is not only the object of the test, he is also subject and value bearer. The value of experience that is gold, the inexhaustible gold of the alchemists, because the user experience like the gold of the alchemists it is not a raw material to be extracted, taken away from the earth and therefore exhaustible, but just as in the alchemical transformation process it is a matter of progressive enhancement that is established among the elements involved in the test: the interface or artifact, which is the research object, the user and the researcher, who is the facilitator of the test. Actually in our tests, which also involve the method and the context, another essential element participates to the re-connection: the customer, who is the representative of the partner company that generated the test with TSW. Only in the presence of both subjects, the “user” and “client” persons, and with the facilitator’s mediation, can the welded relationship be strengthened or re-strengthened.


Test with people

Why do we say that when we talk about our activities we take care of the quality of people’s experience?

Because the user test allows you to determine directly:

  •   the quality of the lived experience
  •   the degree of satisfaction / frustration
  •   emotional / cognitive impact.

How do you develop a test plan? After defining objectives and targets, a coherent sample of “user” people will be recruited to whom will be submitted some tasks to be performed, isolated and selected from the experience under analysis. During the interaction a moderator observes the user, stimulates his reflections and assists him in case of unexpected events. Integration between observation is think aloud it allows users to analyze the users’ expectations in a qualitative and accurate way and the presence of the moderator facilitates the expression of implicit contents or values, which contribute to constitute the gold mentioned above.

In some cases, more and more often today, it may be useful to investigate certain behaviors held by people during interaction through objective quantification. They come into play at this point: eye tracking, EEG is GSR, which allow to gather detailed and objective information on the visual and emotional impact generated.

The user test isolates and examines the activity flow of a precise moment of the customer journey, but can bring out experiences and relationships, brand perception and assessments that people have beyond that moment, touchpoint, task or specific case.

The usability test read in this qualitative and quantitative form has the merit of being a malleable and flexible tool, capable of bringing value to any phase of the project precisely because it collects a complete and ordered set of data on what users see, do and they say, but also think and project into the future.

In fact it is when the time variable is introduced that it emancipates itself from mere contingent use and if the usability we test is no longer the contingent use, but as we have read it has a projective value, perhaps it is worth distinguishing usability and utilizability.


Usability, users utilized and not used

Usability is sometimes confused with utilizability. It is common the use of this term in the form of an adjective, for example: “… this tool or this site is particularly usable”, meaning that it can be used or utilized; employable, utilizable. Sometimes the adjective is considered synonymous with useful and even utilizable, but let’s try to make some distinctions that maybe help us to better understand the meaning of the words themselves.

The utilization is not directly the use, but it is the making of something useful, that is suitable to be used. In this sense our job is to utilize artifacts and the aim is to make them useful to the users’ experience, not to use them. Even users are not used, or reified in our protocols, but utilized in this sense. Users are made, and made themselves useful, for the re-connection that has obvious reciprocal advantages for the parties.

In the context of e-commerce sites, the meaning of web usability is often limited to efficiency: making sales and / or performing other important operations for “conversion”.

In this perspective, usability is a variable key of the funnel conversion because it helps to determine the “skimming” that occurs between the number of initial users and the number of users who actually make a purchase.

With the widening of the possibilities of choice and with the diffusion of memorable shopping experiences, it was understood that there is no such thing as an ideal funnel, every business has its own model and this must be updated and improved periodically to meet the needs of the market.

If therefore, to conclude, you connect the value of the usability as a degree of satisfaction, well-being and gratification of the people, to the shared concept according to which, also for purely business purposes becoming established in the market, the best possible result can only be obtained with continuous analysis and evaluations, we can understand how we have managed, without fear of denial, to be able to say that: “We improve the experiences by listening and through listening we transfer value to companies (and to people)”.

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30 October 2018 Bernardo Lecci

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TAG: eye tracking usability test qualitative research antropological marketing The Sixth W approach