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The Ancient Art of Manual Usability Testing

Automation and organic gardening have been on my mind and so has just about everything else, while I create content maps for a manual usability testing job for a client.

The painstaking process of digging deeply into a website without any net, any software and any caffeine is not what most usability professionals dream of doing, and yet it is the promised land for me. I know, after almost 18 years of looking under the hoods of countless websites as a usability consultant, that I will find deeply buried issues and user experience traumas.  The work is done manually. It’s slow going. I would fall asleep if not for the fact that I know I will find gems in there that the website owner is not aware of.

The spreadsheet I created is my own lovely creation. Like everything I do, my work is always proprietary and customized to fit the project I’m hired to do.  Early in my consulting career I learned that people steal and after seeing me replaced by my own work with someone else’s name on it, I decided to guard it all with the promise of being unique.  No cookie cutter deliverables. No famous book to show me off by. (Not that I wouldn’t like to write one.)

What I do and the way I do it is my own methodology mixed with official training and a billion hours of client work.  It’s my job to find new opportunities for websites to meet their business goals. They can’t do that if their website is broken.

But It’s Not Broken

Yes, it is. For somebody.

As much as I couldn’t stand being trained in software QA testing (because it is routine oriented and I’m not), it is exactly the disciplines and practices I was taught that I apply in my usability audits.  I had the good fortune of being told to develop the methodologies used for software usability QA testing by an employer a long time ago, which allowed me to take the functional testing training and pop it into usability testing. Both require test cases and test plans. Both require knowing in advance where you need to go, and why you need to go there.  The fun is in the details, like how you get there, why you don’t, and what the hell happened when a requirement wasn’t met.  When that requirement fails and costs a few hundred thousand bucks, you get why my job was so fascinating. And vital.

Companies loathe hiring people to look, test, review, or audit when they believe nothing is broken.

It’s not broken if it works. But it can work better. It can work for more people who came in search of what you have to offer because the keywords were optimized just so, rank results were perfectly just so, and the data agrees everything is just so, and I’m saying, it can be more than just so.

It is also sometimes broken.

The content map I’m working with now has rewarded me with official defects that I must record and report on.  Some are functional, such as broken links. Most are usability heuristic failures that create or contribute to user performance issues or user errors. Some are device related problems, meaning that on a desktop the user experience may be fine but on mobile, the thumbs lose. Those are not really defects technically. They are signs of web designer inexperience.

Take for example one paragraph, with duplicate links to an off-site website. First, sending people off a website is never a good idea if you want them to stick around and complete a task on yours. Secondly, two links to the exact same URL in one paragraph is a big “huh?”Â  One opens a new window and the other does not. Another “huh?”

Compound that with another example, where there are duplicate links to identical anchor text, so it looks like two links to the same website, only one goes off-site to the website and the other one goes to a Facebook page.

This is information that automation testing tools are not interested in. Both links work.  Nothing is broken, other than the user experience.

Why Organic Gardening

I recently moved from a luxuriously newly built house with walk in closets the size of small rooms and all the energy saving gadgets out there, to live on a small farm. The farmhouse was built in 1860 and is adorably charming, with stone walls, wooden beams, real wood floors, stained glass windows, and deep window sills.   We were lucky to even get a closet. The barn was built in 1730. We are out in the middle of nowhere, planning the biggest garden I’ve ever had, researching what having a goat is like and wondering if the bear that reportedly came to visit the previous owner last year has any family members.

Nothing was broken, but we moved anyway.

Why? (Well, we are not entirely sure. The kids blame it on me.) Anyway, it has something to do with the experience of being in the one house and it not being the right fit even though it looked gorgeous, was easy to use and the view out the back was pleasant.  We do the same thing with websites. The ones we use and return just feel like the best experience. They fit us. We are content when we are there. We never dream of leaving unless something feels wrong about the experience.

This, by the way, is one of those areas I can never truly communicate to site owners. They can’t imagine anyone not loving the experience of being on their site.  It works, they say. Nothing is broken.

Window view from farmhouse
The perspective changes depending on the view.

At the new place, every nook and cranny of this farm is a new adventure to explore. While something may not be technically broken, like the stone walkway leading from the driveway parking lot area to the house, it nevertheless could be more user friendly (because the stones are not all actually in the ground anymore, for starters.)   The blue color used for the shutters”¦well, nobody likes it but hey, we can put repainting them into the “Future enhancements” column. I do this for my clients too. There are always suggestions and recommendations that are not critical but notable. There are always changes that compel visitors to want to return to see what you created for them to experience next.

The gigantic area of land being planned for the vegetable and flower gardens is going to require more education to learn how to manage something that large. We need it watered. How to handle weeds naturally. How to protect it from deer and rabbits. It’s like learning CSS3 or HTML5, when earlier versions were fine but when you grow something bigger and grander, your skills must adapt.

Manual Usability Testing is Worth It

Getting into the dirt of any project is worth the extra time and effort. For starters, you appreciate what you create more when you broke a nail making it. Or paid someone to rototill the land. Or paid them to click every link, look under every image, and follow every call to action prompt.  A slow walk through, which is how I conduct content mapping, prepares me for the information architecture stage and the site audit phase, because by the time I reach the end of mapping out a site, I also have an intimate idea of what the user experience is like because I walked in their moccasins.

You can’t automate the way we do things on websites.  People never go where you think they’ll go or do what you think they’ll do.  This is why I love reading all the human behavior studies for search behavior and information sciences research. The findings clue me in and add a depth to my observations, which is what they always are.  I’m never judging a website. That’s not what a site audit is for. Or QA testing.
There is always a gem in there. Something that is so minor and simple, that if wiggled a different way, promises to bring in more traffic or revenue or desired conversions. There are not many people who do manual usability testing like I do.

We are a dying art. Sometimes techy advances provide support and automation tools signal trouble or sound alarms. I use them too.  But nothing beats human testing when the ultimate website goal is to be experienced and cherished by humans.

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