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Five steps to effective usability testing for mobile apps

To avoid costly mistakes down the road, conduct usability testing and get a grasp on users' reactions to an app before rolling it out. These tips can help perfect the process.

Everyone makes mistakes, but developers never want those mistakes to see the light of day. Testing a mobile app's usability is one of the most important steps to ensuring that the app will be successful in the real world.

Usability testing provides a methodology for you as mobile developers and IT admins to observe how select users respond to an app. You can then analyze the results of usability testing for mobile apps to determine where issues exist and to deal with them before releasing the app to the main user audience.

Development teams that do not perform adequate usability testing for mobile apps are likely to end up with a product that frustrates and discourages users.

Start early

Get users involved as soon as possible. Start with prototypes that demonstrate the app's basic functionality. Show them mock-ups or screenshots, or anything else for which it makes sense to ask for user feedback as soon as possible.

By starting early, you can avoid a lot of future frustration. It's costly and resource-intensive to implement changes after most of the development is done; it's much easier and cheaper to modify the design before developers write a lot of the code. Early usability testing for mobile apps also helps ensure that usability remains at the forefront of the team's thinking throughout the design and development phases.

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Be prepared

Usability testing for mobile apps is much more than sticking a bunch of people in a room and letting them play with the app. You need to come up with concrete objectives that outline what you want to get out of the usability testing for mobile apps.

Then, define the tasks that users will perform during testing, taking into account those objectives. Focus only on the most essential tasks -- keeping them short and simple -- and make sure they're representative of the app's objectives.

Also take into account logistical issues. For example, decide where you will conduct the testing and which resources you'll need. Resources can include moderators, note-takers, cameras or credit cards for testing financial transactions. You must be able to clearly observe and record the users' reactions throughout the testing process. Rehearse the test with a user or two to ensure that you have all the right pieces in place.

Get real

Whenever possible, use real people working on real devices in real-world environments. It's okay to turn to automated tools and emulation software for some usability testing for mobile apps, but you need authentic conditions and human interaction to receive the best feedback. Start by gathering a sample of users that fit the target demographic, avoiding the temptation to simply pull some of your techie coworkers into a conference room.

Consider where users will likely use the app and plan your locations accordingly, even if it means those locations are in shopping malls or private homes. Include as many device and platform types as possible, and make sure your users are testing on familiar devices -- ideally, their own devices. Don't assume that just because the app will look okay on some devices, it will be usable on all of them.

Also, use realistic data for the testing rather than placeholder text of the Lorem Ipsum variety.

Watch and learn

When you conduct the tests, provide only the amount of structure necessary to keep users on task. Don't micromanage them, give too many instructions or explain how features work. This should be a process of discovery for both the observers and the users. The primary focus is to study how the users react to the app. Watch even for minor gestures, such as hesitation or raised eyebrows.

Be sure to record the users' actions as they carry out tasks. Don't disrupt them any more than is necessary during the session, especially if those disruptions could lead them to conclusions they might not draw on their own. If you want to ask questions, hold them until the end of the session and keep the questions specific enough to solicit useful feedback.

Be analytical

The real work starts after the testing phase. With the data in hand, you must now organize and aggregate that data, and from there, try to draw meaningful conclusions. Thoroughly review all notes, videos and other collected information to identify trends and patterns.

It might be useful to organize findings into logical categories based on the app's functionality or user interface. You want to come out of the analysis with an understanding of how users responded to the app and where they ran into roadblocks or unnecessary complexities.

Next, you'll need to present the findings in a way that is useful to the entire development team -- usually in a single comprehensive report. It should be clear from the information that the results are based on real user reactions, without injected opinion or appeasements to team members.

The report might also include specific recommendations for how to improve the app, but this will depend on the specific circumstances.

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