1. Fix the basics

Focus your efforts and resources on simplifying the routes to the users' key goals: the Red Routes. All products and systems have these critical user journeys. With a limited budget, don't waste money on secondary tasks or on edge-cases. Focus on the main goals that the user is trying to achieve and simplify the steps to get there.

2. Learn to love paper

Create paper prototypes very early in the design stages — before any coding takes place. These paper interfaces will show the key screens and controls needed to complete tasks, and you can quickly test them by having participants touch controls with their finger, rather than a mouse, to trigger screen changes. A human "computer" switches the screen views in real time. This approach requires zero coding effort, and you can easily make changes on the fly, so your designs can go through a number of iterations in a short amount of time.

3. Test with fewer users

One reason usability testing provides such high ROI is that most usability problems can be detected by testing with very few participants. You don't need to see 10 people fall into a pothole to know that you have a pothole that needs fixing. Just a handful of participants will help you spot a raft of usability issues, so test with a handful, make design changes and test again.

4. Shelve the 1-way mirror

A plush test facility with a 1-way mirror is a luxury for most usability tests. You can cut it from your budget with zero impact on the quality of the data you collect. All you need for a usability test is a quiet room in your office. If you want to test away from base, rent a hotel meeting room for £150 rather than a test facility for £600. To keep the development team engaged, use a screen-sharing service like GoToMeeting so observers can watch the test from the office.

5. Run a test from your desk

Save money, time and travel costs by conducting usability tests remotely. The design and structure of remote tests is similar to face-to-face tests, but participants carry out the test from their own home or office. Use a phone to talk with participants and screen-sharing software to see their screen (once again, the development team can drop in and observe from their desks). If you want larger samples, conduct an automated, unmoderated test for a fraction of the cost of a face-to-face test.

6. Get out of the office

Your users are everywhere. Here are four ways to engage them:

Test in a café. If you want user feedback on a web site or software application that is intended for use by a broad audience, camp out in Starbucks — or somewhere else where you can get free Wi-Fi — and put up a discrete sign that says "Free Cappuccino for 15 minutes of your time!" Get each participant to carry out a couple of tasks, and rotate your tasks to ensure you get full coverage.

Go where your users congregate. For example, if you're developing a mobile phone handset, stand outside a mobile phone store and intercept customers for a 10-minute interview. Ask them about their phone, the way they typically use it, and what issues they encounter. Field visits are cheap to carry out and give great insights into user behaviour.

Create an electronic diary. Ask people to take photographs whenever they interact with your product, or a competitor's. Ask people to pay particular attention to when things go well, and when they don't. Then get people to post their photos to your account on flickr along with a short commentary (use flickr's privacy settings to keep the images confidential).

Use the trunk test. In his brilliant book, Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug recommends the Trunk Test as a way to test people's ability to navigate your system's interface. It's analogous to being blindfolded and put in the boot of a car, driven around town, then being dumped out at some random spot. Print out a few random pages from your web site, or some screens from your interface, and ask passers-by to answer these questions as quickly as possible:

  • What site (or system) is this?
  • What page (or screen) are you on?
  • What are the major sections of the interface?
  • What options do you have at this level?
  • Where are you in the system?
  • How would you get back to the Home page (or Start screen)?

7. Eradicate pre-test bloopers with expert reviews

Get your internal team to carry out an expert usability review of your product or system where 3-4 usability experts apply a set of best-practice checkpoints and heuristics to an interface. This method is inexpensive and provides a rich source of actionable data. Expert reviews save money because they will identify the usability problems that will stall a test with real users. After these are fixed, your test will uncover the deeper issues that are unique to the way your customers work.

8. Create your own participant pool

Recruiting participants costs around £1000 for a typical study. Slash these costs by building your own participant pool. With just 200 people you won't run the risk of testing with the same people every time. Work with marketing, sales and customer support to identify potential volunteers. Consider adding a check box to your registration material so that customers can indicate their willingness to sign up and design future products.

9. Skip the pointless test

Tests should be conducted only if you have the opportunity to make design changes. Many projects have a usability test scheduled so late in the design cycle that few, if any, problems can be fixed. This is a waste of time and money. Reschedule the test or cut it.

10. Learn how to fish

You know the Lao Tzu proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". Providing usability training is a smart way to spend a limited budget. Train your designers and engineers in the basics of usability so that they learn tools and techniques they can apply themselves. In-house usability training is particularly cost-effective, and you can invite members from other disciplines within your company. This can serve to build bridges between development groups and can provide a company with a common vocabulary to aid group communication. If you want everyone to be on the same page — usability is the page to be on.

About the author

Philip Hodgson

Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) holds a B.Sc., M.A., and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology. He has over twenty years of experience as a researcher, consultant, and trainer in usability, user experience, human factors and experimental psychology. His work has influenced product and system design in the consumer, telecoms, manufacturing, packaging, public safety, web and medical domains for the North American, European, and Asian markets.

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