Embracing the unexpected with usability testing.

Profile photo of Emma Campbell

Emma Maguire (née Campbell)

May 29, 2024

Man standing at corner of paddock with a reel of wire about to repair a fence.

People are unpredictable. When interacting with your product, you can’t always anticipate how their minds will work. It’s important to remember that how you intend for someone to use your product may not reflect how they do. Your intent often represents the ‘happy path’ most customers will take. However, you need to be aware of how different people might behave and react to your product.

In the real world.

You may not realise it, but you encounter examples of unintended usage every day. For instance, outside my apartment window, I see two paved paths from the river to the road crossing: one shorter with stairs and another longer, accessible to bikes, wheelchairs, and prams.

Bike and pedestrian pathway showing bike tracks carved into the grass as a quicker route.

In the photo above, you can see that bikes have created two new paths through the grass to reach the road crossing faster. The people who designed the longer path intended it for bikes, but enough cyclists have sought a more direct route, carving new paths through the grass. This is a perfect example of the execution meeting the requirement of accessible pathways, but we can see that people adapt to their immediate needs. More consultation was needed with the end-users to form a better path. 

Another popular UX meme involves a three-bowl cat feeder. The owner intended for each cat to have its own bowl. However, as shown in the photo below, the cats didn’t follow this plan but still achieved the intended outcome of getting fed.

A meme showing two photos side by side. The first is of three cat bowls lined up perfectly on a at feeder, the second shows three cats eating from the bowls indirectly over each other.

The importance of usability testing.

We can never design a product experience that meets everyone’s unique way of thinking. However, we can mitigate this by conducting usability testing. Traditionally associated with digital products, usability testing is equally valuable for physical products. Observing how different people interact with your product ensures that, regardless of the path they take—intended or not—they achieve the right outcome.

Electric fence energiser case study.

Last year, I participated in a usability test for installing electric fence energisers on the farm in Ngaruawahia. My husband and I completed the set-up independently and approached the task very differently.

I am a stickler for rules. After opening the energiser packaging, I immediately grabbed the instruction booklet to understand my first steps. My minimal knowledge of energisers made me rely heavily on the instructions. By following them meticulously, I successfully installed the energiser despite a few minor hiccups.

In contrast, my husband confidently approached the task, thinking, “How hard can this be? I just need to plug it in, and it will go.” He discarded the instruction booklet, examined the hardware and cables, and tried to figure out the installation himself. Only after exhausting all possibilities did he refer to the instructions, focusing on the pictures rather than the text. Eventually, he, too, successfully installed the energiser.

Lessons learned.

We were both presented with the same problem under identical conditions but had different thought processes, leading to varied experiences. The intended path was to use the instruction booklet during installation. However, our experiences highlighted that customers might take different approaches. Usability tests in real-life scenarios can help make strategic customer experience decisions, ensuring a positive experience regardless of the user.

Example actions from usability test results.

  • Since a customer might not read the instructions, how could we help guide them through installation? Is there an opportunity to add markings on the hardware to prompt installation steps?
  • If the instructions are discarded and lost, how can we provide access to them? Including a QR code on the packaging or hardware that links to a digital copy of the instructions could help.
  • How can we make the instructions easier to follow? Incorporating images showing the necessary hardware and equipment at each installation step provides customers with a visual reference.

Usability testing is a powerful tool for testing assumptions and uncovering ways to improve the customer experience with your product. Check out our article here for best practice tips on observing your customers interacting with your product.

Any questions? Please feel free to reach out!

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