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Book review: Usability Testing Essentials by Carol Barnum

​Book review by Janet Taylor

If you need to test but don't know where to start, you need to read this book! The initial review, from 2015, featured the first edition of this book. It now includes the updates for the second edition.

Usability Testing Essentials Book

Like most technical communicators, I really wish that I could speak to some of my readers, to get to know what they expect of the documentation I produce and how useful my efforts are to them. The best I can achieve as the reader’s advocate is from our developers: “our customers expect it to be complicated/would understand what we mean”. I’d like to respond “rubbish!” but I simply have nothing to back it up.

So I jumped at the sight of Carol Barnum’s book about usability testing. Testing with small samples was the drawcard for me. And the book delivers. The only drawback is that you have to put in effort to test, whether it’s a small sample of people or large. To help you along Carol has included a large number of questions you can ask yourself (and your testers) so half the effort is done for you. In fact, the book is full of lists, such as:

  • Goal setting using the 5Es: Efficient, Effective, Engaging, Error tolerant, Easy to learn.

  • Planning Meeting Agenda.

  • Post-test Questionnaire.

  • How to write simple 3-point severity rating report of the findings. In fact, there’s two chapters devoted to reporting the findings.

This is a magnificent book, and covers every conceivable type of manual testing ranging from small groups, large groups, international groups, groups in a lab/not in a lab, remote groups, testing run by someone else using your test plan and so on. I cannot think of any facet of testing that isn’t included in this comprehensive book.

Most of the test examples are of web sites, but that is easiest to give examples of. And they are all interesting, even the responses. As soon as a thought such “what about this other way?” popped into my head, it was answered in the next paragraph. Uncanny. Each chapter starts with a summary of the contents, then at the end there is another summary of what has been covered. But there is nothing repetitive about either section. I don't normally include a list of chapters in book reviews, but I was going to do so for this one, and, you've guessed it, it's already included. So here's a reduced version of the contents:

1. Establishing the essentials just does that. One of the essentials is to define a vocabulary you can use. 2. Testing, here, there and everywhere looks at your testing options. All your conceivable testing options. 3. Exploring the usability and UX toolkit puts usability testing into the context of user centred design. This chapter gives an overview of the variety of techniques that you can use. 4. Understanding users and their goals starts the pre-planning process.

5. to 7. is Planning, Preparing, and Conducting testing. This is the bulk of the book and it is best used when you read all the other chapters. 8. What to do with all those findings? and 9, Reporting the findings are full of helpful advice about how to report your findings, and describes the various scenarios in which that might happen. It also is a guideline in how to manoeuvre your own report result scenario. 10. International usability testing focuses on the unique aspects of international usability testing included advice about learning about the culture in which you will be testing. Carol has included some unexpected differences between some cultures and our own.

My personal note

This is one of the best non-fiction books I‘ve ever read (and it’s had some stiff competition). It was an absolute pleasure to read. It also included an acceptable replacement for ‘heuristic’, a word that I hate. ‘List of checks’ was used instead for a list of items to consider for usability. As expected, the list is included the book. Note that although I have used capitals in copying from the book, most of the headings are free of the capitals that can be so irritating in books by US-based authors. There are an enormous number of references to free resources to further your knowledge.

Specific changes in the 2nd edition

This new edition provides the same comprehensive coverage as the first edition, but every chapter is updated to reflect advances in tools, technology, and support for usability testing. The approach to testing, however, remains grounded in the same practical steps that cover the entire process of planning and conducting a usability test, analysing the findings, and reporting the results. Filled with new examples and case studies, Usability Testing Essentials, 2nd Edition is completely updated to reflect the latest approaches, tools and techniques needed to begin usability testing or to advance in this area.

Other changes in the 2nd edition edition:

  • A shift away from a specific view of usability testing to include the concept of user experience (UX). To reflect this shift, early chapters have been reorganized, and Chapter 2 has been given a new name to introduce the UX toolkit early and to place usability testing within it.

  • A change from a single case study as the main example at the end of each chapter to a variety of shorter, embedded examples covering websites, software, mobile devices, apps, and more.

  • A refresh of the resources and references to reflect current thinking.

  • An update of the tools and techniques to reflect online tools available in current practice.

  • A revamp and expansion of checklists to reflect preparation for remote testing and doing the work with smaller teams of one or two researchers. (This is also available on the companion website.)

  • An update of the discussion and examples of reports for many contexts, including presentation-style reports.

Given all these changes, it’s important to note that the basic methods for planning, preparing, conducting, analysing, and reporting the results of usability testing remain unchanged. The core principles remain strong.

Usability Testing Essentials, 2nd edition by Carol Barnum. ISBN 978-0-12-816942-1

The companion website site provides support for planning and preparing for testing and writing and presenting reports:.

About the book author

Carol Barnum is Professor Emeritus at Kennesaw State University where she was Director of Graduate Programs in Information Design and Communication and Director and co-founder of the Usability Center. She is the author of six books and more than 50 articles and book chapters on usability, technical communication and related fields. She is well-known internationally, having presented at numerous national and international conferences, including the ASTC. She has been named one of the “28 Best UX Researchers you should follow” and is a designated “UX Pioneer.”

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