Creating An Illusory Environment For Usability Testing

A good user researcher knows that gleaning valuable insights from usability testing depends heavily upon creating scenarios and environments that mimic the real world as much as possible. This goes beyond just creating a usable, convincing prototype for the user to interact with. Using lighting, furniture and props can create an illusory environment that removes the user from the lab and places them in their home or office matching the experience they would have when using the product that we’re testing. But where is the line between illusory and gimmicky? Identifying that line and not crossing it is a talent that takes experience and instinct.

For example, we recently conducted testing for a client on a prototype of an application that allowed users to create an account and access financial information. We conducted the testing in our Kansas City testing lab. We needed to have the user complete several tasks. The first was to create an account, which involved collecting personal information, asking for identifying financial information, and culminated in a piece of mail being sent to their address with an activation code as an added level of security. This step was proposed by the client and our instincts told us that users would be put off by it. The next task was for the user to receive their mail notice and login. Lastly we were to ask the user to imagine it was a week later and they needed to log back in from their work computer and choose whether to have a security code to identify their new device by email or text.

The Illusion
Because we didn’t want to capture the participant’s personal data we created test data and gave the user a persona full of data to use. The data that we gave them had more information than they needed to complete the tasks because we wanted to recreate the experience of having to dig for infrormation that you are being prompted for. We also created an official looking notice that would come in the ‘mail’ with the activation code. We asked the user to imagine that several days had passed, they came home and checked the mail and received their notice. Now they needed to log in for the first time.

Lastly we needed to tackle the security code that could be sent by email or text. Since we couldn’t determine ahead of time which delivery method the user would choose, we created a mock email with the code that the user could view in another browser tab to give the feeling of having to check their email. We also created a simulated text message that was an image. When the user chose the SMS method, we purposely entered an incorrect passcode so that the phone would buzz. We handed the user the phone and told them they just received their text message with the security code.

This extra effort put the user closer to the mental model of their everyday lives. By simulating the mail experience we found that users were, indeed, put off by adding a paper process to an online one. With the security code, we found that most users were likely to choose the text method and had no problem transferring the code from their phone to their desktop browser.

The Line

What would have made the testing gimmicky? Where is that line that we talked about earlier? Some on the team had proposed that we have the user walk around the building between creating their account and getting their ‘mail’. We could have had a team member dressed as a mail carrier ‘deliver’ their mail . From our perspective we felt that this would add a silliness factor to the testing that would cheapen the illusion while not adding value to the research. We could have had the user go home and come back to complete the testing 5 days later. This may have been a more realistic simulation of the process but it would have been logistically difficult with a large sample size of 20 or more people.

When it comes to conducting testing in a realistic-feeling simulation it’s helpful to create an illusory environment to immerse your user. Create props. Change the lighting. Use multiple devices. But avoid crossing the line to gimmick. How do you do this? Bounce the ideas off your team. If you’re a research team of one, ask other user researchers. If your instincts tell you that something feels silly trust that feeling. Do a dry run with someone you know and adapt your testing plan accordingly. If the participant is laughing at the process, the illusion becomes play and you’ll defeat your own purpose.

Google Just Announced a Major Change to Search. Is Your Website Ready For It?

Posted on June 11th, 2015
by Alan

This spring Google announced a major change in its search engine algorithm that left many website owners fearful. Sites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices will now be ranked lower than sites that offered a mobile friendly experience. The change is a smart one for the tech titan. Serving smartphone users web results that lead to sites that don’t render properly on their device makes the company look behind the times and decreases consumer confidence in their product.

The reality is that lack of mobile responsiveness has the same impact on your company. As User Experience professionals we’ve long advised our clients that considering mobile first means that you are giving your customers the information or tools that they need at their fingertips on whatever device they are using. When a user loads your website on their smartphone and sees a large site filed with tiny buttons suited only to desktop