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Usability testing enterprise software made easier and more effective with these 5 tweaks and techniques, from interactive prototyping to TCO estimation.

“Usability testing”, according to Oracle, “is a research method for answering the question: is this product easy to learn and use?” It sounds simple, but as any UX professional or user researcher knows, figuring out a product’s true usability requires a systematic and subtle testing approach. When the product in question is an enterprise software or application, things get even more complicated. In this post, we look at the why enterprise software poses a challenge to usability testing, and discuss 5 testing techniques to ensure more accurate, actionable usability testing results.

Why is usability testing enterprise software complicated?

Oracle’s description of the objective of usability testing – to answer the question of whether a product is easy to use – is a good jumping off point, but it could apply to both enterprise and consumer-facing software alike. There are several factors that complicate the task of ascertaining the usability of an enterprise application. Firstly, when testing an enterprise software, organizational experience has equal weighting as individual user experience. Back in 2005, Jakob Nielsen described enterprise usability as “how the system impacts the company over time, including issues in administration, installation, and maintenance,” and his words still ring true. Any usability testing of an enterprise software has to look beyond the single user’s ability to manage an interface or complete a task, and dive into Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) to the organization as a whole, cross-departmental interactions and long-term impacts. Instantly, usability testing becomes more complicated.

Add to that recent changes in the modern workplace such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes, which mean that hugely complex, highly secure systems and softwares have to be multi-device friendly. Additionally, enterprise clients often need software to function on numerous server, storage and OS platforms, all of which need to be testing both pre- and post-installation for usability issues. 

But none of these factors reduce the centrality of usability to the enterprise software experience; testing is hard but vital. These 5 tips and techniques provide a baseline for effective enterprise software usability testing, leading to actionable results.


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5 tips to improve enterprise software usability testing

Test-training & tutorials with interactive prototypes

It would be pretty much unthinkable to launch a consumer-facing app onto the marketplace expectng users to read a manual or attend a training course before using the product. That’s why usability testing on consumer-facing software is done cold: testers have to know how a newbie user will react to the product. When it comes to enterprise software, this rule is not so hard and fast. Yes, enterprise software has to be intuitive; but some training of users may be the norm in an enterprise thanks to the irreducible complexity of global systems.

This means that throwing user testers into an enterprise usability test cold can produce skewed results – testers can’t know if a difficulty arises because of usability glitches or just because of a lack of basic training. The key is to give testers the fundational knowledge they need to navigate an enterprise app, without coaching them to ace usability tests.

That’s where test-training with hi-fi prototypes comes in. Once an interactive prototype of a final product solution is created using a prototyping platform like Justinmind, these hi-fi prototyes can then be used by testers to design usability tests that have training-like activities built in. For example, instead of asking a tester to do a task completion activity once, ask them to do it twice – the first time will be like a training run, the second time will be a truer test of intuitivity. Also, creating mini ‘tutorials’ based on the prototyped solution is a great way to provide a controlled introduction to the UI without testers being tempted to ‘coach from the sidelines’. MeasuringU provides a full account of what happened when they asked users to test complex software with and without tutorials.

By adding elements of training into usability tests before the software is coded, developers can separate real usability problems from issues that will naturally be ironed out during in-house training.

Improper use testing

Thanks to their aforementioned complexity, there’s a lot that can go wrong when using enterprise software. That’s why all enterprise usability tests should include ‘improper use’ tasks. Will the software react gracefully when a user goes down a wrong pathway? Will its error messages be explicatory and actionable for all users? The usability testing stage is an opportunity to ask user testers to ‘fail’ and then work their way out of a problem.

Building error messages and reverse pathways into an interactive prototype allows testers to watch users solve problems without raising testing costs. Sitepoint has some savvy advice on error message design.

Roundtables & Total Cost of Ownership assessment

Procurement and QA departments in any large enterprise will be well versed in assessing this Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for any product bought in, but what does it have to do with usability testing? As mentioned at the start of the post, enterprise software can be measured not only on its impact on the individual user, but also on the its organizational impact. TCO estimation is a way for testers to get an angle on the organizational usability of a software.

The Nielsen Norman Group posit client roundtables as  as a way for testers to go above and beyond the individual employee, instead zooming in on how the integration of a new software affects the enterprise as a whole. Roundtables involving IT departments, administrators and the C-suite should be organized to facilitate openness, discussion and a bird’s eye view – to ensure full commitment testers can establish some ’roundtable rules’ before things get going – no phones, no interruption of colleagues, or similar. The idea is to break open wider issues around usability that may have been only implied or even concealed previously.

MVP prototyping

‘MVP prototyping’ might seem like an oxymoron, given than traditionally prototypes are non-coded mockups and MVPs are the code seedling from which will blossom the finished product. However, a fully functional prototype of even a complex enterprise system can be created on advanced prototyping platforms like Justinmind. This MVP mockup will have the look and feel of the proposed application, but can be built in a matter of days based on initial requirements gathering: this means usability testing can start earlier and at a lower cost than on coded MVPs, hopefully resulting in less reworks when it comes to the development stage.

Usability Geek have some good advice on how to use prototypes in user testing that applies equally to enterprise systems and to consumer-facing products.

Make results actionable and understandable

Usability testers might sometimes feel that teams fail to act on their advice. A fix for that is to ensure that results are presented in comprehensibly, with advice on how to solve problems and carry out relevant actions. The first thing to jettison is vague wording – make sure everyone knows exactly what and where the problem was, present with visuals and multimedia evidence garnered from usability test tools. Once the exact problem has been explained – “the user failed to locate the log-in button” rather than “log-in was confusing”, for example – it’s good practice to include design solutions. Don’t assume that the development team are all-knowing and all-seeing; a new perspective might make the difference between a great software and an average one. Work with the dev team, don’t lecture them, and build relationships that will result in positive outcomes over the long term.

Usability testing enterprise software – the takeaway

Enterprise software is in flux, with factors as diverse as Cloud computing, BYOD and consumerization all bearing down on design and development teams. Usability testing can provide opportunities for improvement and reflection and cut rework. By following the 5 tips and techniques above usability testers will have a better chance of making positive, long-term impacts on the eventual software, and contributing to enterprise usabiity overall. download-justinmind-prototyping-tool-banner-1

Cassandra is Marketing Lead at Justinmind

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