Are usability studies experiments?

When I conduct usability studies, I use a laptop and Morae to create a portable and low-cost usability lab. I typically visit the participant on site, so I can look around. I provide a scenario that participants can follow as they try using a new software feature. Morae records their voices, facial expressions, on-screen actions, clicks, and typing. The raw data gets saved in a searchable and graphable format. Afterward, I review the recorded data (I rarely have written notes) and make evidence-based recommendations to the feature’s project team.

For example, in one usability study I realised that the order of the steps was causing confusion and doubt. The three-step wizard would disappear after step, so users could modify their data on the screen. Users thought the task was completed with step 2, so the reappearance of the wizard for step 3 caused confusion. I recommended we change the order of the steps:

Change the order of the steps

Changing the order fixed the “confused users” problem. But was this scientific? Aside from the fact that I’m researching human subjects rather than test tubes, am I following a scientific model? At first glance, the usability test I conducted doesn’t seem to follow the positivist model of what constitutes an experiment:

A positivist model

For example, unlike the test-tube lab experiment of a chemist, my usability test had no control group. Also, my report went beyond factual conclusions to actual recommendations (based on my expert opinion) for the next iteration.

I can argue this both ways.

On the one hand, my usability test does have a control group if I take the next iteration of the product and repeat the usability test with additional participants, to see whether my recommendations solved the problem. I could compare the task-completion rates and the task duration.

A model of usability testing

On the other hand, if I were asked to determine whether the product has an “efficient” workflow or a “great” user experience—which are subjective measures—I’d say a positivist-model experiment is inappropriate. To measure a user’s confusion or satisfaction, I might consider their facial expressions, verbal utterances, and self-reported ratings. This calls for a research design whose epistemology is rooted in post-positivist, ethnomethodological, situated, standpoint, or critical approaches, and has more in common with research done by an ethnographer than by a chemist.

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