Breaking the surface – UX & usability

Mark Galvin, Systems Assurance Manager, University of Cambridge, dives into the relationships between QA and testing, and UX and usability.

Many people say that when dealing with user topics, a story is a powerful tool. Before electricity, paper, scrolls and cave drawings, we were telling stories (my kids would say I’ve witnessed all of these eras). Humanity, we are informed, has been conditioned to tell and listen to stories for millennia. James Whittaker’s The Story Manifesto is a highly recommended, inspiring business article in this author’s opinion. So, perhaps, I should start this article with a story:

A few months ago, my manager came to me with a vision. I am not normally one to question my manager, but my first reaction was mild confusion. He wanted me to head up a User Centric Design Office. The office would be a small number of user experience practitioners, who would provide guidance, directions and tools for the rest of the Division – putting users at the heart of everything we do.

“But I am a quality professional,” I informed him. “My background is in quality and testing. I’m not a User Experience Designer.”

“I know,” he replied. “But it’s bigger than that and your background in quality is why it is a good idea.”

After a short amount of further dialogue, and some thinking time, I realised that my manager was on to something. This seemed to be further supported when I read an article called ‘QA and UX’ by Jakob Nielson (just in case you don’t know of him, Dr. Nielsen has been called ‘the world’s leading expert on user friendly design’).

I came to realise that the parallels between QA and testing are very similar to those between UX (user experience) and usability. Both areas seem to suffer from misconception. Testing and usability can be victims of late and limited involvement. QA and UX, if done wrong, can be perceived as ‘experts’ slowing delivery, disempowering staff and stifling creativity.

It made me think deeply about the relationships between QA and testing, and UX and usability.

Perfect on paper, but…

A few years back, I was desperately waiting for an iPad alternative to use at work. When the MS Surface was released, I was sold – this was it, this was the magic solution.

On paper; they’d taken everything Apple had done and made it better. They added a detachable custom-made keyboard option. They added an integrated kickstand (wonderful). They loaded it with Office software out of the box (brilliant).

In terms of usability and my own user experience, it did what I needed fantastically well. In meetings I found myself next to iPad users hunched over a screen, prodding away with sore fingers as words slowly appeared on rustic notepad – while I was touch-typing, head-up, using a keyboard to type into a cloud-synched One Note and using full versions of Office.

However, I was in a minority. For most, Surface RT was a great product ruined by an awful OS. My son got one for school. He has a number of accessibility requirements and while it works brilliantly for voice recognition and Office applications, it cannot install anything other than a limited number of apps from a poorly supported store. When he needed a visual scanning aid, the device could not do it and it became redundant. His machine could not let him perform the tasks he needed to do. He was not alone in this experience.

A great product, with decent usability (in many areas), high quality, and one that passes tests with flying colours might still suffer from very poor overall user experience. And so it was with Surface RT.

It was rushed. It wasn’t marketed correctly and it didn’t take account of the entire user experience.

Windows RT has since been consigned to the great OS graveyard, while the Surface itself has flourished in its absence.

An echo of glory in failure

Not so long ago there was a real buzz in the industry as well as amongst consumers. Google X had made science fiction a reality. But many perceived the Google Glass adventure as a failure.

Why did it ‘fail’?

It was very expensive. It could only be purchased in limited numbers by a select few. The marketing was confusing (the idea was that this would generate exclusivity and product desire and it did generate staggering media interest globally), yet there was no clear product release strategy.

There were hardware issues; breakages, heat problems, low-res cameras, limited applications, poor battery time – all limiting use and frustrating the experience.

Security was an issue but not in a usual IT sense – personal security. Being confronted by strangers (that were just curious or concerned that their privacy might be compromised), posed risks to the user that they would not experience otherwise.

Out of the box user configuration was disappointing, especially when compared to something like a Kindle e-reader. Not great for a high-end device.

Google stopped the Explorer program and took it back to the labs. Many saw this as a disaster for Google, but is this true? How much did they learn through the Explorer program? I’d say they learnt more about marketing, product requirements, hardware, software, design, media manipulation, social interaction, usability and most importantly the overall user experience, than most companies learn in decades. These lessons would have been difficult to learn just through design meetings, or testing in a controlled lab. It was something that required a firm grasp of the daily life of a user and how the device assisted (or hindered) this. Google used this, they assessed the overall user experience and refused to release something that was simply not ready – and by doing this they have protected the product and their reputation. Will it come back? Probably in some form – and if it does it will be infinitely better.

Quality experience

It’s hard to believe, but some people still mix up QA and testing. But it is easy to demonstrate that testing is just one part of quality – even in more recent delivery methodologies, it’s still the part that tends to be done late and can be expensive, especially if quality is lacking elsewhere. Quality, on the other hand is the responsibility of everyone, not just the testers. Quality is better if everyone is involved and passionately working towards it. It starts from the conceptual idea through to ongoing support and eventual replacement. Sure, having a small number of experts (or standards) to draw on is great but unless it is baked into the mixture from the start, no amount of late, hastily-applied icing is going to disguise a teeth-shattering sponge cake.

Likewise, UX is not just usability testing – how a user feels when using a product or service is much more than the buttons, pages, eye-tracking and response times – sometimes we get caught up in this, or worse, we try to justify how much user involvement we’ve strived for (feel free to tell me how agile or DevOps solves everything at this point). But sometimes it’s about what a user is trying to do, what they want to achieve, how they feel, and a webpage or app might just be a small part of that. Sometimes, dare I say it, IT should be just an enabler, essential, but almost invisible in the everyday lives of our users. It is the means, not the end.

Famously, Amazon changed their entire business when they received a complaint that their packaging was hard to open. It wasn’t enough to have a website that was thoroughly tested and highly usable, nor was it sufficient to have competitive prices and deliver quality products – the entire user experience was lacking due to one aspect – so they rectified it.

Everyone needs to own the user experience

There is no point in having a great application, if the user later has to go through a five stage log-in process an hour after they’ve left the system. No point in having the best webpage usability if the user doesn’t have the right support when they need it, or their product arrives late and damaged.

Technology is an integral part of our lives today and it is fast becoming a necessity rather than a choice. We all have a part to play in user experience, from the business leaders through to operational support; it is not the remit of a small number of experts – but the responsibility of us all. There are experts out there, but there are not enough, and a small number of people cannot achieve truly great user experience alone.

Since writing this article, the structure of my division has changed, but the vision remains valid and central to our future.

We are the writers of the story for our users; the end point is where we choose it to be. We must consider the overall user experience. Quality and UX should be central to our thinking. In the words of Dr Nielson, “UX would be much improved if we all acknowledged that QA is the foundation for user confidence and customer satisfaction.”


This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of TEST Magazine. Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.