The best testing approach

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"Making do"

Testing how various users deal with new Web sites is central to the usability process, but how that testing should be conducted is hotly debated.

The best approach, the one that many experts recommend, is to conduct user testing in-house and have the agency's Web usability experts take the tests, said Gina Pearson, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

"Doing as much of it internally as you can [is beneficial], so your Web staff can see the testing taking place and see for themselves how users react to the design of the Web site," she said. "That way you get your staff sensitized to user interface issues."

Testing can be done just about anywhere, including a large conference room. But building a lab for testing, as agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics have done, can reap good dividends, according to Sanjay Koyani, a senior staffer in the National Cancer Institute's Communication Technologies Branch.

"You can do the testing at low cost in-house, for sure," he said. "But having that lab in-house sends the signal, particularly to an agency's own Web team, that users really do matter in what the agency is trying to do with the Web."

However, for cost and convenience, others see outsourcing as the best approach to user testing. "Outside people are already set up to conduct the testing, the cost is reasonable, plus there is the added value that we get an unbiased, scientific approach to testing that we might not be able to get with internal resources," said Sally Perry, director of infrastructure applications in the chief information officer's office at the General Services Administration. "It really is a no-brainer for us."

GSA works with a test consultant to come up with questions and ideas about what to test, she said. Members of the Web team can then watch from behind a one-way mirror as users take the tests.

However, she said, whether you test in-house or hire outside consultants, usability testing is crucial to Web design "at the beginning, at the middle and at the end of the process."

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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