Five Techniques for Getting Buy-In for Usability Testing

by Christine Perfetti

For more than seven years, I’ve been teaching and coaching design teams on how to conduct usability tests and gather user feedback early on in the development process. One of the questions that comes up time and time again from clients is, “How can we get buy-in for usability tests from management and other team members?”

Through our own research at UIE, and in our ongoing discussions with expert usability practitioners, we’ve identified several proven techniques for getting stakeholders onboard.

1. Start Testing Right Away

Start testing. Start doing it right away. We’ve found there isn’t any one experience more beneficial to design teams than running a usability test. I’m still amazed by how quickly development team members recognize the benefits of usability testing once they’ve actually seen it in action.

When I’m teaching courses on usability testing, I’ve found that no amount of lecturing about the benefits of testing gets development teams onboard and past their skepticism. Instead, people only truly comprehend the power of testing once they’ve observed a user interacting with a design.

If you’re struggling to communicate the value of testing to your management or fellow team members, stop explaining the benefits and start demonstrating them. I’ve yet to see a test where the design team fails to gather some new piece of valuable information about the users’ needs.

When development teams start watching users interact with their designs, they’ll typically see two possible outcomes, both positive. In some instances, usability tests confirm the team’s existing beliefs about how users will use their products. But, in the much more common outcome, teams observe users experiencing problems with the design and identify gaping holes in their assumptions.

2. Debunk the Myth That Usability Testing Is a Big Production

One of the biggest obstacles design teams face when trying to sell testing is the perception that usability tests need to be a huge production.

The best way to tackle this resistance is by debunking the myth that testing has to be a big deal. Usability testing isn’t rocket science. The organizations that do the best job of incorporating usability tests into their existing process understand that testing is not a big deal.

The best organizations make usability testing a part of their everyday culture. To convince management that testing doesn’t need to be a huge production, we recommend design teams start simple. You can start by testing 3-5 users and disseminate that information throughout your organization.

Other experts agree. In an interview I conducted in 2002 with Rolf Molich, one of the world’s most respected usability practitioners, Rolf suggests:

If your goal is to “sell” usability in your organization, then I believe 3-4 users will be sufficient. Much more important than the number of users is the sensible involvement of your project team in the test process and proper consensus-building after the test.

Many teams are resistant to usability testing because of the belief that they need to spend money on state-of-the-art usability labs, or they are concerned they won’t find the right users. Again, our recommendation is to start simple: Test on a computer in your office cubicle and start testing with someone, even a co-worker, to begin gathering data. A usability test doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to happen.

3. Start Testing Early in the Process

Many organizations are concerned that testing will disrupt project timelines because it may necessitate major design changes before launch.

However, time and time again, we find that design teams actually save time (and money) when they start testing at the beginning of a project. By finding usability problems very early on, teams prevent themselves from going in the wrong direction, leading to wasted time and resources.

The most successful teams have learned that the best way to create usable designs is to make informed decisions from the beginning of a project. They view testing as a technique to gather information to create great designs in a more timely and efficient way.

One of the best techniques for getting early feedback on a design is paper prototyping. Using common office supplies, development teams can build a working prototype of a design in a matter of days. We recommend that teams use this technique in the first few weeks of development. By identifying usability problems early, stakeholders very often see that the technique saves valuable time in the long run.

4. Involve Management and Stakeholders

To get buy-in from team members and management, it’s essential to keep them involved. On every project, we suggest that stakeholders sit and observe at least one usability test. This will give team members the opportunity to observe first-hand the information gathered from tests.

In an interview I conducted with Ginny Redish, a world-renowned usability expert and co-author of the book, “A Practical Guide to Usability Testing,” Ginny stressed the importance of involving team members:

Involve them. Be a team together. Invite them to observe. If you have an observation room for them, put out candy or other food as an incentive for them to come.

Have someone in the observation room with them to monitor their conversation and, if necessary, join in to keep them from jumping to conclusions too quickly. If you do not have an observation room, set up a schedule so that you only have a few observers in the room at one time. Give them brief instructions on how to behave.

Involve them in a debriefing right after the testing; involve them in helping to find good solutions to the problems.

Sarah Bloomer and Susan Wolfe, two premier usability practitioners also agree with Ginny. In an interview I conducted with them last year, they stated:

It’s really essential that usability professionals collaborate with the product teams and forge strong relationships with these groups. The key is to treat these other groups as stakeholders in the process and keep them involved as the project evolves. That’s the only way to get their buy-in for the results. It never works to simply hand it to them at the end and say, “here you go!”

Stakeholders need to have an ongoing role in the project beyond simply providing input at key milestones. We recommend holding stakeholder workshops to collect their broad range of wants and needs. This allows you to identify the business drivers that can be balanced with those of users.

Another approach is to teach the stakeholders some useful User-Centered Design techniques that they can use themselves. For example, at the MathWorks, paper prototyping has proven to be one of their most effective tools. Because of this, the usability professionals train other members of the development team to use the technique. As a result, it’s been incorporated into their development process.”

5. Identify Your Organization’s Champions and Address Their Needs

Finally, one of the best ways to get buy-in is to identify which members of your organization will benefit most from usability tests and recruit them as your Champions, assisting to rally other members of the organization

In my interview with Sarah Bloomer and Susan Wolfe, they recommend that usability professionals and design team members avoid evangelizing about the benefits of usability practices:

When trying to get buy-in from team members, teams need to avoid the role of evangelist for user-centered design.

For example, let’s just consider the IT folks within an organization. If they’re not familiar with our field, their first reaction will be that this “UX stuff” will delay their projects and hamper their ability to meet their deadlines.

These concerns are real because their performance isn’t measured in terms of the success of the user interface. Instead, members of the usability or UX team need to demonstrate the value of in terms of outcomes that matter to IT, such as less rework and the ability to develop reusable code. Each stakeholder group has their own set of priorities, which needs to be understood and addressed.

In our work, we’ve seen that it’s essential to focus on demonstrating to your organization’s Champions how usability tests will address their specific needs.

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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