Demographics are Key to Unlocking Usability Test Returns

As explained in a previous post, finding usability testers who best represent the target users of your software or app is an essential first step in making sure your usability test delivers useful results. Finding testers with the right knowledge level and experience gives you far more accurate results, and the more specialized your target niche is the more important a well-matched group becomes.

Expertise is just one element of your usability group that needs to match your target audience, though. Demographics—age, culture, and in some cases gender and more—are also important considerations.

All User Experience is Interpreted, and Different Demographics Interpret Differently

There is no such thing as a “good” design.

There are designs that are more navigable than others, and that tends to be relatively universal in broad strokes, but when it comes to making things aesthetically pleasing there is no “right” way to do things. The best design is the one that the majority of your users find pleasing and easy to use, and that can vary considerably based on demographic features.

It isn’t just design interpretation that varies from culture to culture and age group to age group, either. Direct functionality and ease of use can be differently interpreted/experienced by different users with different demographic backgrounds.

Research has shown that our unique cultural experiences can influence everything from the colors we’re able to perceive to the way physical diseases progress in the body.

The complex factors at work in usability assessments are no different.

As with levels of expertise, demographic matching in your usability test group becomes more important as your target demographic grows more narrow. A simple phone-based game might be targeted to anyone above a certain age, while a customizable fitness app might target North American women over the age of 25 with a college education (for example).

Get specific, and get usability testers who match your intended audience when it comes to demographics. Your testing will be far more useful and efficient.

More info on getting the right usability testers to work with you is on its way, so stay tuned!

The First Rule of Usability Testing: Test the Right Users

OK, so the real first rule of usability testing is, “do it.” But we can assume you already know that usability testing is important, and that you need to be doing it in order to make sure your apps and software are creating value for your users—and thus for you—as efficiently as possible.

Given that, the most important consideration when it comes to usability testing is making sure your testers can give you the information you need.

The Best Usability Results Come From Your Users

No one can provide you more information about your app’s user experience than your app’s actual users. Of course, usability testing means a whole lot more than simply surveying users, and it isn’t always feasible or advisable to ask your current customers and clients to fully test your app.

That’s why you need testers who are just like your users to give you real, usable information.

Ask a bunch of software developers how much they like your app aimed at accountants, and you’re going to get information on all the wrong things. Even the most carefully and accurately designed usability test won’t yield the results you’re looking for if you don’t have the right people taking the test.

The more specialized and narrowly-focused your target niche is, the more important it is to find representative usability testers—a banking app aimed at the average consumer can be adequately tested by a wider range of people than a professional-level graphic design program. There’s always a target audience, though, and making sure your usability test group is as close to the target as possible is essential.

Stay tuned for future articles explaining how to figure out exactly who your testers should be and how you can get them to help you out. Until then, we’ll do our best to keep you in the loop!

The Power of Words in UX Research

It’s said that a picture paints a thousand words. But it’s also worth considering that a single word can evoke a powerful image. Consider, for example, what comes to mind when you encounter the word ‘gambling.’ Alternatively, consider the word ‘gaming.’ Likely, different mental images are triggered by each word. Every day, during the course of verbal and written discourse, people have a choice of words to pick from. And it turns out that which words are used can have a significant impact on how the message is received, or the question is interpreted.

Consider, for example, the following pairs of words:

  • Liberal v. progressive
  • Liquor v. spirits
  • Used v. pre-owned

Although the words in each pair are similar to each other, I suspect that each word in the pair brings to mind a slightly different mental image, along with a slightly different emotional response, as well.

Research on the power of words

Researchers were interested in learning about the effect of wording, and how different ways of asking the same question might affect judgments. They devised a study where research participants were shown a video of a car accident and were then asked to estimate the speed of the car that had initiated the collision.

But individuals in each of two groups who had viewed the video were asked a slightly different question:

  • Group 1: At what speed did the first car contact the second car?
  • Group 2: At what speed did the first car smash into the second car?

The difference between these two versions, of course, is that the first example uses the word ‘contact,’ while the second example uses the words ‘smash into.’ Would this difference in wording affect people’s estimates of speed? It turns out that:

  • When the word ‘contact’ was used, people estimated the car to be going 31.8 mph, on average
  • When the words ‘smash into’ were used, people estimated the car to be going 40.5 mph, on average

When asked to recall what had been shown from the video, those who had encountered the words ‘smash into’ also claimed they had seen broken glass, even though in reality, no glass had been broken. The words themselves, then, had a powerful influence both on how people remembered the incident as well as how fast they judged the car to be traveling.

The power of words in UX

But why is all of this important for UX designers and researchers? Well, not surprisingly, the choice of words used when interacting with research participants and with business partners, matters. As we’ve seen, word(s) are powerful drivers of what happens in the mind of the receiver.

As UX researchers, we ask a lot of questions. And how we ask those questions – the actual words we use – can have a significant influence on how participants ‘hear’ and interpret the question and consequently, on how they make judgments and respond. So how do we manage such a situation effectively?

My recommendation is to think carefully about the various ways a question can be phrased, and pay attention to how responses might be influenced. You could also ‘usability test’ the wording prior to your actual study to glean how your questions are being received and interpreted by a potential participant. Using language that is more neutral can also work to your benefit, as stronger language tends to drive mental perceptions and images that are more vivid and ‘extreme.’

Another option is to take a step back and ask a broader question. For example, let’s say you’re trying to learn how research participants feel about a specific aspect of the thing being tested, and you’re particularly interested in any negative emotions they express. The question could be phrased such that any of a variety of terms could be used:

  • Is there anything about this [thing being tested] that makes you feel [aggravated / annoyed / confused / frustrated / irritated]?

Likely, each of these terms brings to mind a distinct mental image and type of emotion. So here, it might be better to take a step back and ask a more open ended question, such as: Tell me about how this [thing] makes you feel. The broader nature of this question leaves room for the participant to express positive and/or negative feelings, rather than being directed to think more narrowly about a specific type of feeling or emotion.

In summary

How we communicate is a vital aspect of life in general, but even moreso for those who facilitate and moderate research studies. Never underestimate the power of words. Although it’s true that a picture does paint a thousand words, a single word can also paint a very vivid picture in the mind of your research participant, thereby driving their behavior and responses, and consequently, your research outcomes.

This is a post by Colleen Roller.  Colleen is forever fascinated with the workings of the human mind, and with the art and science of designing for it. She has written extensively on this topic, authoring columns for UXmatters and UX Magazine. On the personal side, Colleen is a classically trained musician and enjoys performing on alto and soprano recorder. She also designs jewelry, and you can find her necklaces in a popular shop in West Concord, MA.

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