Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Usability testing in entrepreneurial software

Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners has an excellent blog post on Usability Testing and how it applies to building entrepreneurial software. In his post he mentions that it's not just about rapid prototyping and turnaround (which he approves of) but also says that at some point you have to step back and do surveys, and psychological profiles of users and see exactly HOW they used the site. This is a critical step in building software, and obviously (since Jeremy commented on it) important to getting venture funding as well.

At OS-Cubed, we believe that usability testing should be scoped into the project itself, and the amount invested in it should be scaled according to the entrepreneur's budget, but it should be conducted throughout the development process as you're building your demo or proof of concept and rolling out your RAD prototype. In the early stages usability testing does not need to be either expensive or costly. You can do much of the testing yourself with the demo as it's rolled out. Noah Kagan of Mint lays out the steps for you in his excellent post. They involve basically: determining what to test, finding a representative user base, and then testing by observing. Noah recommends using Webex products, so far we've been lucky enough to have user bases that are representative right here in Rochester.

As Noah points out - doing this can be frustrating for the observer. The observer needs to sit back and let the user do it - without intervening or showing them how.

In our experience most of the user testing we've done with KaJour our product for Knowledge Athletes has shown up issues in the scalability section - which you'd expect in demo software. We'd actually anticipated these issues but didn't have the budget to build production level. We consciously chose with the entrepreneur to build more features, rather than make the features we had more robust. The users have also come up with unique and interesting ways of using the product that we didn't anticipate and neither did the Knowledge Athletes staff. Through our user testing we've found new markets, new ways of thinking about what we're doing and developed new teaching paradigms for the community we're serving (at the moment mostly high school and college students with this product).

Although Jeremy points out the obvious benefits of using usability testing to be sure your software is stable and simple to use, he doesn't mention that really listening to your users can allow you to create new and better uses for your software, and take your product in an entirely new direction. To do that you need to truly listen to your users and find out what it is they need - what pain you are solving - and how you could do it better.