The importance of understanding “will” vs. “can” in usability testing

A little boy choosing between a cupcake and apple...looks like the cupcake is the winner.

In my experience it never fails that many stakeholders come to usability testing with the question of “will” vs. “can” Customers use their products or services. It’s a natural and desirable outcome of conducting user research. A positive answer can lead to acceptance of a business case, sign-off on a product launch, or pre-mature glory for the product owner and team. A negative answer can help to avert a disastrous build and launch.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really any valid means to discern from usability testing whether or not a Customer “will” use a product or service. And if research points to that outcome, you should be wary and question the premise of the research. What usability testing does help with is determining whether or not Customers “can” use your products or services. This type of research is focused more on task completion, the time it takes to complete tasks, the ability to navigate scenarios or journeys and come to a satisfying (if successful) or dissatisfying (if the Customer is unable to complete or adequately navigate a journey) ending.

Usability testing is an excellent method of identifying issues in an existing or live journey, or helping to improve and iterate designs at a point when changes can be made and the costs of development have yet to be incurred. Usability testing, by its very nature, is about determining if something is usable or not and how to improve it – not if someone “will” use it, but “can” they use it.

Think about it this way. If Jeff Bezos had conducted usability testing to determine if people “will” buy books online in 1994, we might not have I remember the scepticism of people when Amazon launched. Sometimes your product or service requires a leap of faith, luck, timing, or identification of a gap in the market that users never realised was needed – something that usability testing won’t give you, but other forms of research will help to identify.

It’s important to understand this distinction when engaging with user research so that you have realistic expectations of the process and outcome, and that you set the correct expectations with stakeholders in your organisation.

Usability testing is an incredibly powerful research tool when you know which questions you are trying to answer – and it can be incredibly disappointing when you unknowingly ask the wrong questions. This is the first of a number of posts I’ll be writing over time on my thoughts of user research methods in the digital space.

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