Using usability-test participants multiple times

A question our consultants are frequently asked is, can we use test participants multiple times in usability testing? The answer in most cases is no. And the reason for this is because we give users tasks during the study. We ask questions and post test interviews and we do a debrief by giving users tasks. What we are enabling ourselves to do is see people use different things in our design that we’re interested in.

So that’s the positive. The negative is that by giving people tasks, we’re basically telling them that it’s possible to do certain things with our design. Once that happens, we can’t really use that person again in another usability study because they’ve learned more than they would have used had they not been in a test. When we do post task or post test interviews, either one, we’re asking users questions about things in the design that they interacted with. And as we ask people questions about general things and then hone in on more specific things, we’re basically having them think more about the design than a typical user would. And by the time that happens, they’re no longer a user. And finally, we do a debrief at the end of sessions. This is an opportunity for us to answer the questions that the users asked during the test. It’s also an opportunity for us to tell users how to actually do things in the design if there are current customers. And once this happens again, they’re no longer our user, but we can still interact with these people if they ended up being very good usability test subjects, for example, you might make them design partners and pair them up with a certain developer and they can confer together periodically with questions.

Also, I wouldn’t want not being able to find participants to deter any of you from doing usability testing because it is such an integral part of doing iterative design. So there are things you can do. First of all, use recruiting agencies. These agencies that used to specialize in just recruiting for focus groups are now great at recruiting for usability tests. So call some of them.

You can also use your own website at a forum on the website that says something like help us improve our design in the future and have a keep collecting names of people who are interested over time. And you’ll build a database, use social. You can recruit people through social networks with small incentives and go to certain places where your target users actually spend their time. You can also use friends and family. Now, I don’t mean grab your significant other and just have this person come in for a test. What I mean is ask them to talk to their friends and family about their backgrounds and recruit your target user by all means, through these folks. And then finally, you can actually try doing a different kind of study, an intercept study.

If you have a live website or some place a user can hit on the web, you can install some code that stops the user and ask them if they want to participate in the study. And you have them continue with the task that they already started, which can be very valuable and powerful. So don’t let not having a database of users deter you from doing usability studies, be creative and find a way to make it work.

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