A Quick Guide to Mobile App Usability Testing

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 ushered in a revolution in computing that placed apps at the center of the mobile experience. The ubiquity of Apple’s iTunes store, and the later entry of Google’s Android platform, served to kick start this ‘appconomy’ which has generated billions of dollars in revenue and fostered an entire ecosystem of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and service providers looking to cash in on the app-boom.

The size of the appconomy can be gauged by the massive numbers Apple pulled in in the first quarter of 2012. According to its Q1 2012 earnings report, the iTunes store accounted for $1.7B in revenue, with over 100 million app downloads from a selection that boasted over 550,000 apps. By some estimates, the mobile app market could exceed $21B by 2013.

Why Test?

All this serves to highlight a single point: The global mobile app economy is extremely competitive, with talented teams of developers vying for the attention of venture capitalists, larger companies, and of course, consumers. Given the cutthroat nature of the competition, the necessity of usability testing to iron out all flaws from an app before offering it to the public cannot be overemphasized.

Usability testing covers the domain of actual, in-field testing of an app by real-world users, or performance of specifically designed tests that simulate the real-world experience. This phase is vital for pinpointing potential flaws in any app, and should be implemented as soon as a stable build of the application is available.

Usability testing covers a wide gamut of testing activities. This includes, but is not limited to, testing the app on different devices, different screen resolutions, and different platform versions. An app’s testing base should be composed of a diverse audience.

Usability Testing Methods

Usability testing can be either managed in-house, or outsourced to a reputable firm. The benefits of running in-house usability tests should be palpable enough: developers can closely monitor the testing process and gain valuable, real-time feedback from the users. Testers can operate under the watchful eyes of product managers, who can spot errors and enforce rapidfire resolutions to the same. Developers and testers can have face-to-face debriefing sessions.

Unfortunately, in-house usability testing requires large budgets to build up, staff and manage testing facilities, putting this approach beyond the scope of most mobile development studios, save the likes of Rovio or Zynga. For most of us, in-house usability testing is simply cost-prohibitive.

The alternative to in-house testing is outsourcing, which promises relatively-quick and detailed responses from a varied team of highly competent testers. There are entire firms that specialize in usability testing, and who, through their extensive experience, can often indicate errors and flaws that an untrained eye might not be able to spot. Numerous available services are as close as a Google search.

On the downside, outsourcing usability testing robs developers of the Q&A process and the daily, real-time updates on the real-world testing of the application. So while outsourcing might be financially prudent, it can leave a few gaps in your usability knowledge.

A third alternative, though a patently undesirable one, is to employ simulators or emulators to carry out the compatibility aspect of usability testing. These emulators simulate the experience of using the application. It is an automated process that can serve as a useful mechanical exercise in identifying potential sources of conflict initially, but in the long term, the quality of insight offered by this method is less than satisfactory.

The fourth and final method to test usability is by crowdsourcing. This is a particularly popular route among mobile app developers because it not only helps you collect valuable data about your app, but also create buzz around your product. The typical ‘beta’ route entails launching a beta or alpha build of the app and inviting feedback from users. It is not always reliable, but it is free and can yield a large testing pool. This Cornell University research paper compares crowdsourcing against conventional testing. UTest’s White Paper on crowdsourcing is a good starting point to learn more about this process. Tools such as TestFlight can also make things easier.

Conclusion

Usability testing is crucial to ensuring a streamlined user experience. A study by TechCrunch revealed that the average mobile app has a lifespan of less than 30 days. In this competitive field, customers prefer and demand constant change. Encountering a single bug or a little inconvenience can often turn customers against the brand, forever. Therefore, quick, fast and effective usability testing is the need of the hour to ensure the best possible experience for your customers – and success for your app.

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