We recently completed a round of usability tests for the next version of Visual SourceSafe.  At Microsoft, usability tests are, as you might imagine, quite formal. Andrew Boardman discusses Usability in the most recent article of his engrossing "Foundations" series.  (Previous entries include Window Handling, Performance, and the MUST READ: Globalization.)

Andrew approaches usability from the perspective of a software development lead on a large and important project with a major league budget. But what if you work for a small company or on a small team or on a team with a minor league budget?  What if your team doesn't have any budget for usability testing whatsoever?  What then?

In the past, I have participated in two small, under-funded projects where the following 'discount usability' approaches were employed to great effect. If you cannot afford one-way glass and a usability engineer with a doctorate in some esoteric discipline, I suggest you explore these techniques.  Oh!  And involve the folks who write your documentation in the process!  You won't be disappointed.

Cognitive Walkthrough

My favorite approach. Usability engineer optional. Programmer/writer mandatory :-).  A cognitive walkthrough is "...a technique for evaluating the design of a user interface, with special attention to how well the interface supports "exploratory learning," i.e., first-time use without formal training." [Usability].  For more information about cognitive walkthrough methodology, see:

Heuristic Evaluation

Usability engineer required, usually. Programmer/writer strongly recommended :-). "A Heuristic evaluation (Nielsen and Molich, 1990; Nielsen 1994) is a usability engineering method for finding the usability problems in a user interface design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process. Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles (the "heuristics")." For more information, see How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation.

Related Blogs, Books, and Websites, an abbreviated list

Steven Clarke's Blog, Microsoft usability engineer.
Usability on the cheap, Part 1, using paper prototypes.
Raymond Chen, occasional posts on the design history of Microsoft Windows
Microsoft Usability Labs,where you can sign up to test the next killer app
Usability Inspection Methods, book by Jakob Nielsen

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