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What I didn’t know usability testing would make me think about

We’re doing usability testing on a new product and I have spent the last couple of days reviewing recordings of the test sessions. This is one case where design went horribly wrong—don’t ask, it’s a long story and I can’t tell it anyway, you just need to know that the videos are painful to watch.

Pain—the test subjects’ and mine, aside, the thing that struck me is that the users seemed to be more distraught by their self-perceived incompetence than the inability to complete the task at hand. No matter how often the moderator reminded the subjects that there was no right or wrong way of doing things, that the test wasn’t a reflection of their abilities, the fear of their own inadequacy was palpable.

The humans, we are a funny, insecure bunch. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Thing is, you see, that at our very core, we all want to be liked, looked up to. We fear judgment, coming across as simple, not being interesting. We dread being dismissed, lost in the crowd, and we want to stand out, be acknowledged for who we are. Who we want other people to think we are. Our personas.

Think about the word persona for a moment. In user-centered design personas are what we look at as a “life-like” representation of who our users and their goals are. We base entire bodies of work on them.

Yet, when we talk about real people, the word persona implies a degree of fabrication. The projection of an image that we want other people to interpret as our true selves. It’s a little bit like acting in a movie where we portray ourselves as the character we think we ought to be.

In this light, the latest trend of “outing” ourselves as imperfect and vulnerable makes a lot of sense, I think. It looks like that after years of being rockstars, gurus or ninjas we realized that we needed a new, less threatening and more human approach. All of a sudden, we’re exposing the imperfections, the flaws and the insecurities that they cause us. They become the traits we parade, we want people to look at the dark side that we kept hidden for so long, and like us for it, in spite of it, because deep down we still want to be looked up to, despite it.

Me? I just know that I don’t know. There are people I can relate to and people I can’t. I try to be fair, to always look both ways, to dig underneath the persona. Some times I’m more successful than others.

You? You are what you want me to see. The role you are acting in. But you also are what I can see beyond that. Fair as I’d like to be, perception is truth, and if what I perceive doesn’t matter to me, well, I only have a finite amount of attention. Like everybody else.

But, you know, not all testing is done to measure one’s worth. Some tests are just there for the taking. The result is what you make of it.


  • Reply Avi Harel |

    You can get more from your users by asking them to play the role of testers rather than users. You can ask them to find bugs in the software or the website. They will perform the same tasks, and they may focus on accomplishing their tasks, yet their minds would not be distracted by continuous concerns about their own image.

    • Reply alberta |

      Thank you, Avi. That is a good approach. In this context, where the tests were run by an external entity, it was fascinating to watch through the mirror, so to speak, and look at things from a different vantage point.

      • Reply Shekhar |

        Hold on guys, we should never ask user to test the website – that is not the matra of UT. Let them perform the task. Users should never be asked to TEST or suggest the DESIGN improvements.

        UT means WATCH them DOING it and you OBSERVE, then later analyse and them do the iteration on what went wrong.

        • Reply alberta |

          I can’t say I disagree. In this case part of the game was observing the observation, if that makes any sense.

So, what do you think ?