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The Design Lesson We Should Take Away from “The Dress” – Usability Testing Matters!

Understanding the biases and perceptions of your users is critical to solution success

By now, pretty much everyone in the world has weighed in on the color of “the dress” originally appearing in a post in Tumblr. There are scientific explanations (here’s one) about why some people (and sometimes the same person) see the dress as black and blue and others see it as white and gold. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that the light balance on the particular photo that blew up the internet is at that perfect storm combination where depending on the light in the room and your brain, different people will perceive the dress in one or the other of the color pairs.

I was convinced that the dress was white and gold each time I looked at it during the day and then at night, when I looked again on my iPad in my dark bedroom, the dress in the very same image looked blue and black. The New York Times (and others) published images taken using different lighting and white balancing that clearly show that the dress is, in fact, blue and black. The debate has divided the internet and divided families (me: white and gold; my husband: blue and black) but for those of us who design software solutions for a living, it is a stark reminder of the importance of usability testing!

Usability testing matters. It doesn’t have to be expensive or exhaustive (take a look at these great guidelines from Jakob Nielsen) but what you learn will help ensure that you are not delivering a white and gold dress to people who want to wear black and blue! What you think of as completely obvious may be completely confusing to someone else. Even if you practice and follow all the best principles of user-centered design, you won’t really know if you got it right until your solution is used by real people with real jobs to do. You can improve your odds of getting it right by conducting usability tests of your design along the way.

Here’s a simple example that has had a major impact on the task plans I create for information architecture and design projects. I once worked on a site design where the design team thought we’d created a really great way of organizing the information so that people would easily be able to find what they needed. We decided to do a quick usability test with a few users and we quickly learned how much we’d missed the mark. Our testers consistently grouped the topics in the same way – just not the way we’d thought they would – and came up with labels for the groupings that our entire team agreed were infinitely better than what we’d initially envisioned. Our testers did not have the same biases that the design team did and they were able to add insights based on their activities that helped us deliver a solution that users really loved. A very small investment in time resulted in a significant improvement at a very low cost.

If you are struggling with getting your solution sponsors to invest in usability testing for your solution, ask them what color the dress is. My hope is that the ensuing fights that break out will convince them about the importance of usability testing!

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