I am a firm advocate in the practice of usability testing. In my graduate program I studied in depth the design model of rapid prototyping and its inherent connection to usability testing. I’ve found that the strength of rapid prototyping comes through the frequent opportunities for end-users to test the design throughout the development process instead of involving them when it’s ”finished.” Usability testing is an indispensable element of good design because good design rarely makes its debut on the first try. Design should be iterative and flexible in order for the final product to meet the learners’ or users’ needs.
In a graduate course on Instructional Design we watched an interesting video about the design process at IDEO. In their design practices they demonstrate a value of teamwork, creative brainstorming, and rapid prototyping. In a short amount of time they put their ideas together into a functional design to test its soundness and gauge consumer reaction. In the video, a few key ideas stood out that have since shaped my personal philosophy of instructional design. Their mindset is that “enlightened trial and error succeeds over the lone genius” and it is often necessary to “fail often in order to succeed sooner.” “Failing” is much easier and cost effective if it happens in the initial stages of the design rather than when the final product has been delivered.
In my experience as a designer, I have been surprised more than once when my perception of crystal clear design had some rough areas that were caught in early testing by the end-users. It can be tempting for designers to falsely believe that we know our audience so well, or that our budget is too small, that we don’t need to test our design. And although I recognize that not all types of training can be developed rapidly, design ideas can certainly be tested in simple ways early in the design phase. For example, end-users, or even people from the office who are unfamiliar with the project can function as testers to experience paper-based mock-ups of a website, training course, simulation, or navigation system. Additionally, you may want to survey a small group of people regarding the readability or engagement of the project. Solicit their thoughts and feelings and brainstorm solutions together.
The key to usability testing is to find people who are representative of the target audience and who are willing and able to give their honest opinions early enough that you can adjust the design without impacting the budget. To avoid expensive and unnecessary revisions common in development, I suggest you ask early and ask often.
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