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Usability Testing with Real Data

Alex Genov, Mark Keavney, and Todd Zazelenchuk

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 4, Issue 2, February 2009, pp. 85-92

Article Contents

Reduced Cognitive Load

Another advantage of real data testing is that it doesn't require participants to bear the artificial cognitive load of remembering a fake scenario or recognizing data invented for the purposes of the usability study.

The TurboTax team noticed this benefit when they conducted real data testing. Previously, many test participants had asked clarifying questions about the artificial scenarios or data to the extent that the team was beginning to wonder if the test results were reflecting real usability problems or were just a result of the participants' confusion with the artificial data. When participants used their own data, they were completely immersed in preparing their taxes and did not ask any clarification questions about the scenarios.

The reduced cognitive load (and perhaps also the greater realism) led to an increased level of cognitive engagement in the interface than in previous studies. For example, when faced with a question about their income on one of the screens, participants made sure they understood the question and answered it correctly, fully aware that a wrong answer by them would lead to inaccuracies in their tax return. In contrast, in studies where participants used fictional data, they were more prone to make up answers and numbers and less motivated to be accurate.

So, rather than spending their time and mental energy focused on remembering artificial data, participants in a real data study are more focused on what they're doing, which is presumably their focus in the real world.

Greater Emotional Engagement

The final benefit to real data testing is that it makes participants more emotionally engaged in the situation. This often results in a better understanding of the product's strengths and weaknesses, and richer feedback to the design team. For example, when doing their own taxes, participants were very focused on exactly how much money they were going to get back or have to pay. TurboTax has a refund counter in the upper left of every page that shows the user's current refund or tax owed. Based on this feedback, the team decided to enhance the refund counter and make it a larger part of the interface.

The Quicken Health team, in their real data study of their product, found the same deep emotional engagement when participants encountered highly sensitive areas such as insurance claim denials and adjustments. The negative impact associated with these topics (e.g., unexpected fees) was heightened for participants because it was their own medical service that was being denied. This feedback was given to the design team, who considered the implications of this finding for the visual design and language around notification of claim denial.

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