Usability and User Testing

Most of you know that I teach WordPress classes for libraries. One of the things that I always have trouble with is teaching plugins. There are so many different plugins out there and they all work differently. Some you install and that’s it, some you install and have to set up, some have their own control panel and others put their menus under Settings or Tools. It’s hard to explain to newbies why things aren’t standardized in any way and that’s why this post at Smashing Magazine caught my attention.

The average website has over five plugins installed (according to PressTrends) and often a theme options panel. For a great experience to continue throughout the website as people actually experience it, we need to establish strong standards for the rest of the community to follow.

I am calling all WordPress plugin developers and themers. You don’t need to guess what your users might want or how they will experience your product. Just watch them. We know it: if we focus on usability, stability and then value, we can make products that users will line up for.

To the core WordPress team and the community at large: Let’s get together and create WordPress human interface guidelines for those who contribute by providing plugins and themes for the world to use. Apple gave us a rock and upon it built a foundation that few can deny. Google finally got around to it with Ice Cream Sandwich, and I expect to see drastic improvement in the wild west that is the Android application landscape. Help us help WordPress.

This doesn’t go just for WordPress though – this goes for our own library websites and our OPACs. How many of you do user tests? Tests where you actually watch the patrons/users try and find things on your website or in your catalog? I’m guessing not many. Most of us think it’s too costly or maybe takes too much time, but if you just reached out to your patrons you might find that you’re wrong. The cost might be some chocolate or a small gift card and as for the time it will be well spent.

For some pointers, read the entire post over at Smashing Magazine and do some research on how others go about usability testing, I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll be surprised how helpful it will be!


  1. Usability testing doesn’t really have to cost. Recently, in a similar low/no-budget scenario [mostly because getting a budget for usability studies is hard to sell to muggles], we ripped off our betters to great success. The University of Michigan Libraries–they, too, having ripped off … the library escapes me, but it’s in an old Code4Lib article–went around ALA awhile ago talking about “X/O Participatory Design,” which is the money-language referring to patrons crossing things out on a screenshot. Between this and some card sorting exercises, we snagged more than 700 results – really, 700 printed-out screenshots [a few dead trees] with markings all over them. The insight was phenomenal.

    Eye-tracking and screen-capping individual users can be valuable, but it represents just a few people who even collectively can’t *really* represent the widely varied constituencies and “types of public patrons” that use the library.

  2. This is what I’m talking about – usability testing on a budget! More libraries need to do this any way they can, but it did cost your time and the cost of the paper and ink 🙂 I don’t want people think that any testing is completely free of cost, but do want them to know that the tiny investment of time, paper, ink (and maybe chocolate for bribes) is all that’s needed.

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