Talking Usability Studies with Bill Killam

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Bill Killam of User-Centered-Design, Inc. about usability studies. Bill has been in the industry for 30 years, so he’s a great source of knowledge. We conduct a number of usability studies, so it’s always great to pick the brain of an expert like Bill. Below are the questions from the interview. Enjoy!

1. What’s the most common misconception people have about usability studies?

There’s this idea that anybody can do them, but that’s just not true. A lot of people try, but you need to know the correct things to look for. Too many people look at the wrong thing, maybe because that data is easy to get. Just because you can measure how long it takes somebody to do something doesn’t mean that’s the best data to be collecting.

What you have to remember is that everybody sees what they’re trained to see. A graphic designer will see something different than a market researcher. A person with a psychology background will see something different than both of them. It’s all useful data, but not all of it is usability data. To make sure people see usability data, they need to be trained to look for the right things. This training is more rigorous than people assume, and when it’s done incorrectly it really diminishes the value for clients and for the field itself.

2. Can you explain more about your philosophy that outlines “design and development are distinct processes?”

In user-centered design approaches, the design must exist before you start development. I like to compare this to building a house. In the house building process you will find architects, a construction crew, and an interior design team. The architect designs the house from the homeowner’s perspective and architects understand what can and cannot be built, but they don’t build the house. The construction crews are the experts in building the house, but its based on the blueprints they are provided. If there are problems in the construction process, they go back to the architect to work out a solution. Neither works alone, but each have specific areas of responsibility. After the house is designed and built, the interior designer can fill in the rooms in the house to make it more attractive and an even more compelling user experience.

Too many projects either fail to separate design and development or try to perform design and development at the same time. When this happens, at best the user may get an interface that matches their functional requirements, but not their usability needs. And they often don’t even get that.

3. What is the best time in the design process to conduct usability studies?

There actually is no single best time, but best times. You want to be testing early and often. However, since design and development are not the same thing, and since design comes first, usability testing must occur in the beginning, middle, and end of the design process to ensure the design will meet the user’s needs before spending time and money on development. This will actually save you time and headaches in the overall process by eliminating costly changes in the development process.

4. What do you wish everyone knew about usability studies?

For a while people thought small sample that usability tests were the silver bullet. They thought collecting the comments or time on a task of a small set of users could be the one stop approach to all usability questions. There’s recognition growing now that this is not the correct approach. Hopefully this realization continues to grow.

The user-based test, because it’s with a small sample, is really an expert review with help. What you get out of the test is based on the quality of what the person conducting or observing the test sees. The better the expertise of the person conducting the usability test, the better the results.

Bill Killam is the president and founder of User-Centered Design, Inc. an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research at George Mason University, an Adjunct professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, and an Adjunct professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America.

He has been providing Human Factors Engineering, user-centered design, user experience design, and usability services for 30 years. He has worked for, or consulted to, companies such as GTE, TRW, IBM, and The Mitre Corporation; Federal agencies including the US State Department, the US Geological Survey, the US Courts, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and commercial organizations such as Nextel, CapitalOne, GEICO, and AOL.

To learn more about Bill and his company’s offerings, please visit his company’s website at

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 at 8:42 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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