Guest PostInstructional designers are familiar with the basics of usability testing to improve the design of an instructional unit even while it is still in development. Watching users work through an instructional unit or navigate a Web site for the first time helps uncover the ambiguities underlying what we thought was quite obvious. Poking around the Web, I came across a podcast interview by Jared Spool with author and usability expert Dana Chisnell, Spoolcast: Usability Guerilla Techniques (ignore the introductory music and such, the interview begins at about 2:00). She shares two factors that can take us from ‘good user research’ to ‘great user research’: having a Vision and having a Strategy. As I traversed the web threads further, I found other posts that made comments that extend one or both of these components. So let’s take a brief look at how usability can be improved by having a vision and having a strategy.

Image by JulyJu from Flickr Images at Creative CommonsHaving a Vision

Dana Chisnell says in her interview that usability has to be “more than a spot check on functionality.” To conduct an effective usability study, create a vision for what you want the users to gain and what sort of experience you want them to have during the interaction. Great usability begins with a commitment to creating a great user experience. We have to understand more about the users: who are they and why are they visiting the site or participating in the instructional unit (their needs and goals). In another blog, “User Experience Supports Findability and Usability,” Kim Krause Berg comments similarly about knowing web users, “understanding, in-depth, who web site visitors are is a good place to start.”

Having a Strategy

A great vision is implemented through a great strategy. Three thoughts are offered as part of implementing a strategy: (1) use qualitative data to describe the full user experience, (2) implement usability early and often, and (3) share the usability role with others.

First, some usability studies result in statistical, quantitative reports: the average number of clicks to complete a task, the average duration for completing a task, etc. However, Lane Becker (“90% of All Usability Testing is Useless”—but don’t let the title scare you off) argues that real usability drives modifications through a holistic, qualitative approach: why were the users confused, what were they expecting?

Second, usability data should be gathered early and throughout development to accommodate revisions when they are less costly and more efficient. “Some of the most inspired work I’ve seen has happened on whiteboards in the observation room while testing is going on several feet away” (Becker).

Finally, who does the usability testing is part of the strategy. Chisnel recommends involving the entire design and development team: let every member of the team know first-hand what it is like for the user to interact with the instruction. Becker adds, “Anyone who might have a stake in what’s being tested should be present for at least a part of the process.” And both agree that good usability testing can be performed by those who are involved in the design and development, contrary to some opinions that say that only objective outsiders can perform an unbiased analysis of the user experience.

According to Becker, “it’s time to get your hands dirty.”

Guest blogger: Linda Sadler is a Master’s student in Instructional Design at the University of Memphis. Her particular area of interest is safety training in the general industry setting. In the fall of 2009, she completed the 30-hour General Industry OSHA Course to acquire an overview of the safety environment. As part of a broad context analysis that supports safety training, she is interested in pursuing a quantitative study of the safety culture in Memphis-area high-hazard companies to uncover factors that impede adherence to safety guidelines. Linda is currently the Editorial Assistant for The Southern Journal of Philosophy at the University of Memphis.

Image by JulyJu from Flickr Images at Creative Commons

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

7 Thoughts on “2 things to put usability in your sights

  1. It’s so cool when someone finds something good in something I’ve done or said or written. Thanks! You might also be interested in an article I wrote on A List Apart: “Usability Testing Demystified,” available here:

    (By the way, the last name has two Ls: Chisnell.)

  2. Thanks, @Dana, for jumping in. I believe I already have that article bookmarked. Would you like to join our discussion the week my course is talking usability?
    ~michael g

  3. I’d be honored! Let me know what the timing is like. You can DM me on twitter at danachis or email me at

  4. How terrific to have a comment from Dana Chisnell. We’d certainly love to hear any further thoughts you’d like to share with us.

  5. Federico on February 16, 2010 at 6:18 am said:

    Excellent post. I particularly loved the part about involving the whole design/development team in the testing, so everyone can see what issues arise and get some specific feedback about how what they do affects the final product and the user. Usability testing as a team effort/activity/ task. I love the idea. I normally get the impression that we think about evaluation in a very narrow way. They way that you presented this team usability testing would provide way more information and distributed feedback than other options that are probably used more. Fantastic!

  6. Luke A. (UU) on March 10, 2010 at 10:53 am said:

    Usability testing is such an important step to take with technology now-a-days and this blog is great insight as to why. In my experience I have seen the need for a broader age range of testers as technology has begun to grow and change more rapidly. I see this most of all with respect to my generation’s (teens-20’s) ability to adapt to new technology compared to my parents’ generation. The things that we as the younger generation find very user friendly are sometimes only user friendly because we know where to look on websites, remote controls, iPods, etc. for those aspects. It is thus important to test the ability of multiple generations to use a design prior to production.

  7. Linda on March 10, 2010 at 1:23 pm said:

    Luke, thanks for sharing some feedback on the importance of testing with multiple age ranges. I do agree that familiarity with technology and the controls bridges the gap when trying something new. Experience with similar environments plays a role in exploring new territory–where to look, how to try, etc. Suspecting that I am in your “parents’ generation,” I appreciate the reminder. In our courses we are exploring navigation techniques, but in some ways they are all super-familiar to us and we are more likely to be able to figure out other navigation systems. But if you have a user that is less emersed in navigation structures and alternatives, they may get lost more easily. That’s why you hear stories of users facing the “awesome layout and navigation” and saying “what am I supposed to do?” It’s just not as obvious to everyone.

    Glad to hear from you.

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