Usability test reports – your chance to influence a new standard

What do you think about international standards such as ISO 13407 or ISO 9000? Necessary but dull? Expensive but important? Irrelevant to daily life?

I’m not going to pretend that these documents are ever going to compete with Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code for the public’s attention as light reading. But a standard can be really helpful in guiding us towards appropriate professional practice (that’s ‘doing things properly’ in plain English). I’ve also found that certain clients with engineering or bureaucratic tendencies respond really well to the idea that ‘we’re following a standard’.

CIF for formative

So I’m delighted to report on progress that’s being made on a standard for usability test reports, to be precise ‘a common industry format for reports of formative usability tests’.

Let’s deconstruct that snappy little title.

‘Common industry format’: the idea is that we’ll have a format that is accepted and used widely by usability practitioners.

‘Reports’: there are lots of ways of communicating the results of testing within teams and to clients. Many of us find that getting people along to view the test is one of the most effective methods, with video highlights a close runner up. But the written report is still crucial: for communicating results, for creating a record, and for demonstrating value in what we do. And, let’s be honest: many of us get paid when we’ve delivered the report.

‘Formative usability tests’: why put in the word ‘formative’? Because there is already a common industry format for ‘summative’ usability tests. Not sure of the difference between ‘formative’ and ‘summative’? I think of them like this: the primary purpose of a ‘summative’ test is to find out how usable something is. Whereas the primary purpose of a ‘formative’ test is to create ideas for how to make it more usable. You might actually do similar things for either type of test but the purpose is different. (Arguments on this, as with anything else I write, are always welcome).

Progress Towards A Standard

I’ve always been a bit wary of the common industry format for summative usability tests (CIF). It’s a good format, to be sure, but my work is almost always intended to help create change, preferably in the direction of better usability. My experience has been that the clients are mostly interested in what we found and what to do about it, whereas the CIF majors on what we did and doesn’t have space for recommendations.

So I was pleased when, thanks to a bit of juggling of commitments in the USA, I was able to get to a workshop in Boston that’s started the work on the ‘CIF for formative’. Over 30 highly opinionated usability specialists succeeded in working together and achieving consensus on things like a first version of a shopping list of items that could be included in the report, possible metrics, and some rules or suggestions for how you choose which things to put in the report.

What Happens Next

Now we get to the ‘your chance to influence’ bit. The workshop ended with a call for volunteers who will take the work so far, formalise it, and generally beat it into shape. I’m sure that some testing of the proposed format will be in there somewhere. So if you’re interested in helping, now is your chance.

This article first appeared in Usability News