Usability Testing: Microsoft’s Unique Approach

If software designers do not have a good understanding of users’ needs, the product they create may actually make users’ work or activity harder to perform. Also, if those designers do not have a good understanding of the capabilities and limitations of their users, the product they create will be complex and difficult to use.

To address these issues, Microsoft established the usability group in May 1988. The group’s mission was defined, the first staff positions were filled, and the first lab suite with four labs was built. Engineers were hired to conduct tests identifying the problems users experienced when using Microsoft software and provide feedback to product designers.

“Our labs’ approach is unique because our usability engineers are completely integrated into product development from beginning to end.” said Marshall McClintock, Microsoft usability manager. “When we began designing Windows 98, for example, we found that users had trouble installing software. So we made the setup process simpler by reducing the number of decisions users have to make and giving them more feedback throughout the setup process.”

Today, Microsoft has five lab suites, with a total of 28 labs. Usability testing is less centralized than it was a decade ago, with five divisional usability groups working closely with specific product development teams to ensure that Microsoft develops the most useful and easy-to-use products for its customers.

The Usability Labs determine how useful products are by attempting to provide answers to three equally important questions:

  • Does the product do something customers want?

  • Can people use the product to do what it is designed to do?

  • Is the product desirable?

To answer these questions, the Usability Labs employs engineers with a wide variety of educational backgrounds, including human-factors psychology, social psychology, industrial engineering, technical communications, developmental psychology, information science and computer science.

A separate group, the Usability Test Coordinators, recruit outside users to spend a few hours at the Microsoft corporate campus working with the products Microsoft is developing. The Usability Engineers and Test Coordinators work closely together to bring in users whose work and experience are appropriate for the product they’ll be testing. By observing customers actually using a product, the engineers can determine how well the product meets their needs and whether it is easy to use.

By creating Usability Labs, Microsoft made a major commitment to usability. Usability tests affect the work of virtually every employee involved in product development. The results can be seen in the ever-improving design of Microsoft products, from Microsoft Office and Microsoft BackOffice to the Microsoft Developer Studio visual development system.

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