Aside from leaving comments in this blog and the other various MacBU blogs, or sending us feedback on our product feedback website, there's another way to interact with us. Our user experience research team (which includes me) conducts usability tests.

In a usability test, we show you a prototype or some very very early code and ask you to complete some tasks using it. While you're completing those tasks, we'll usually ask you to think out loud so that we know what's going through your head when you're going through our code. Our usability tests take an hour or two, and we schedule them at your convenience. This means that you get to see early versions of what we're working on, and help shape the future versions of our software!

For example, if I were conducting a usability test for the calendaring functions in Entourage, I might ask you to complete the following tasks:

  • Look at your calendar. This tests whether you can find the icon, menu item, or keyboard shortcut that opens up the calendar view.
  • Your accountant just called and asked if you could meet at 2pm tomorrow. Are you free at that time? This tests whether you can understand the information that is presented in the calendar view.
  • Before your meeting with your accountant, you'll need to remember to get together your tax information. Leave a reminder for yourself. There are multiple valid ways to perform this task. If I am interested in a specific one but the user does the other one, then I'll ask them to try to find another way to do the task.
This is only a small corner of a usability test, but it gives you an idea of what we do when you come in for our usability tests.

We primarily do our usability tests in Redmond, Washington (which is in the Seattle area) and Mountain View, California (which is in the San Francisco Bay Area). We also travel around the world to meet our users. In exchange for participating in a usability test, you will receive a hardware or software gift from us. You could get a free copy of Office:Mac 2004, or one of our desktop sets (including Microsoft's new Mac-only desktop), or an Xbox 360 game, or even a copy of Windows XP.

If you are interested in participating in our usability studies, sign up here. People always ask about beta testing, but I think usability testing is cooler. (I know, I know, I'm biased!) You've got two hours of my undivided attention. I take the results of the usability tests that I conduct, and go directly back to the product teams to make recommendations for improvements. Usability tests are very hands-on, and have a huge impact on what we do.