Book review: “Rocket surgery made easy”

Whether you are business or a user, I don’t think there is any doubt about the importance of a good user experience of a site or an application. However, the usability aspect often gets overlooked or doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In a digital landscape where one has to move quickly, the focus tends to be on ‘getting something out of the door quickly and tweaking it later.’ A lack of time and/or money are usually cited as the main reasons for not doing usability testing.

Let’s take one step back; what is usability testing? Usability testing is all about watching people actually using something that one is currently building (e.g. software, a website or a mobile app) or something that is already live. The main objective of usability testing is to make something easier to use or to get feedback from the user on any improvements which could be made. Outcomes of usability testing are usually qualitative. In my experience, you usually end up with a list of potential improvements and related user quotes to illustrate the problem in question.

A while ago I read “Undercover User Experience Design” which was all about making user testing easy and accesible. I just finished reading “Rocket surgery made easy” by Steve Krug, a well-known web usability consultant. One might be familiar with one of his earlier books, “Don’t make me think”, which is all about web usability made the easy.

The main point which Krug is trying to get across in “Rocket surgery made easy” is that usability testing should NOT be difficult, time-consuming or expensive. Krug reinforces this point by highlighting a number of (practical) ways in which usability testing can be made easier:

  1. Test frequently – Rather than doing a massive one off usability test once a site or app has been built, Krug proposes regular, monthly testing whilst a product is being developed. Getting as few as three users in for testing on a monthly basis will provide valuable user input which will inform subsequent builds and iterations.
  2. Recruit loosely – Krug argues that “doing testing frequently is more important than testing with ‘actual’ users.” His advice is to find users who reflect your (target) audience but at the same time not to get too hung up about it. Instead, Krug suggests to make allowances for the differences between the people you test with and your ‘actual’ users.
  3. You can test anything – You don’t need to have a finished site or app in order to test with users. Test as early in the development process as possible; whether it’s just wireframes or getting users to test your competitors’ websites, this should provide you with useful input into the product development process.
  4. Testing outcomes – Especially if one does usability testing on a regular basis, the ‘output’ of each round doesn’t have to be too onerous. The facilitator or any of the testing observers can take notes during the session which can then be collated and discussed internally. Ultimately, the objective is to aggregate the most serious usability problems participants encountered and to feed these into a list of problems that you’re going to solve before the next round of testing.

Main learning point: “Rocket surgery made easy” is a very useful and practical book that should enable people to do usability testing on a shoestring budget (and still get useful user feedback). I guess what I like most about Krug’s approach to user experience and usability is that he keeps things simple. This encourages people to just set up usability testing sessions and not be afraid of getting it ‘wrong’.

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