I've always been a big believer in usability testing. It's the perfect parallel to functional testing. You just don't know how people will use your product untill you watch people actually using your product. One of the problems with usability testing is that it can be expensive and time-consuming. I was excited to hear about a new startup called UserTesting that is looking to solve both of these problems.
The site automates many aspects of usability testing and it makes it affordable. This allows companies large and small to run tests quickly and cheaply. The process is very straight forward and can be used to test both web-software as well as desktop applications (Windows Users).
To begin you setup a basic account and specify the instructions and tasks you want your participant to performs. Each participant costs $19 so for under $100 you can run a five person usability study. Participants are recruited from across the web and have a range of demographics, houshold incomes and other factors. You can also specify additional requirements for your participants if needed.
Each participant installs a screen-recording application that will record them running the test as well as their voice describing what they are doing and why. Each test runs 15-20 min but can be more. You can view tests online or download a flash file for archival or later playback.
One of the downsides of the service is that it's not interactive. If users hit a roadblock or can't get past a certain step you can't step in and give them a hint. You're only viewing the video once the test has been completed. You also can't follow-up with additional tasks or additional questions, each test is a one-shot deal.
Another portential downside is that you can't specify particpants yourself. So this wouldn't be appropriate for very industry specific products or internal tools.
In an in-person test if people get stuck you would let them struggle for 2-3 minutes and then give them a hand so you can learn more about other parts of your application. Without this ability you get to experience true customer pain as they struggle to perform tasks with your appilcation. This is a good reality check but you may find yourself screaming at your monitor with the same frustration that your customers may feel. This can be a good thing as anger is a good tool for getting bugs fixed.
The service doesn't have many bells or whistles but it does provide a great core value and I highly recommend it to any company that hasn't run usability tests before. UserTesting.com