Wed, June 22, 2005

Usability Testing is Painful

Based on my observations of usability tests, I’ve known intellectually that when a website has usability problems, it can be a tremendously frustrating experience for those struggling to successfully use it. That theoretical knowledge became painful reality last night. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as angry, frustrated, and beaten. I was shouting at the website on my computer “I want to send you money! How do I complete the sale?”

The worst part was that I was fairly sure the site was broken. I’d used the site many times before and it had worked fine.

No, perhaps the worst part was that as a website designer and developer, I thought that perhaps I’d just overlooked something. Banner-ad blindness, you know. I took a long careful look, again, at the shopping cart for the “Complete Sale / Check Out” button. No button.

Like most people in usability tests, I blamed myself. What am I doing wrong!? Am I logged in correctly? Yes. Does the help on the site say anything? “Press the Complete Sale button…” Where? I search the rest of the help for anything, anything that might tell me what I’m doing wrong. Nothing. Wait, are my Greasemonkey user scripts or Firefox extensions breaking something? Nope. Was I blocking the images or something? No. Is my computer infected with spyware? I grabbed the latest update and tested to find a bunch of false positives, but nothing apparently wrong. Perhaps I should try another computer. Nothing. How can a hugely popular site be missing the button to complete the purchase!?

I was almost at the point of doing something crazy and trying the site in Internet Explorer when I stopped myself. If the site doesn’t work with my browser, do I really want to send them money? No. Sale lost!

When a website breaks, as in this case, there’s no obvious way for the user to know that the site is broken. At least in a physical store, if there’s no clerk around, I know it. The web user is left to wonder and blame himself, even when he should know better.

After sending off a sad email to the site’s customer support, I gave up, defeated. The next morning, the site’s shopping cart was fixed and worked as I’d expected it to. The button appeared in a sidebar that just hadn’t been there before. Too bad I no longer wanted to purchase anything.

I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for those we torture during usability testing. I now know why I’ve seen them close to tears while we think “It’s obvious! Just go back two pages and press that other button. Why are they getting so emotionally involved?”