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Chapter 39. Unusable You > Too Little, Too Late

Too Little, Too Late

Software developers often throw away useful findings on product usability because they get them too late. Leading vendors of development tools and other shrink-wrapped software like to prove their commitment to usability by pointing to shiny new testing labs where representative end users can be observed and evaluated with elaborate video and computer equipment as they try out software. Empirical usability testing is more glamorous than usability inspection, but lab testing has some major disadvantages. For one thing, usability testing comes too late. Realistic evaluation of end-user interaction with software requires a working system, usually a beta test version. By this time the user interface mistakes have all been made. Finding them all will be difficult to impossible. Since the basic structure and functionality of the software is cast in concrete code, it's typically too late to do more than tweak and fine-tune superficial aspects of the user interface. The result is a user interface that may be polished but is still misshapen. The real problems are often in the architecture of the software and user interface, in how the features fit together as a whole or fall apart, in the basic model on which the software is built.

Even when there are fundamental flaws in the architecture or the need for major rethinking of how the software and the user interact, usability testing often does not reveal them. It is better at identifying smaller problems within a given overall approach. Just as you can't test your way to bug-free code, you can't test your way to defect-free user interfaces.


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