Domain experts vs experts in a process: Tips for conducting usability testing with complex products designed for SMEs.

I recently completed a project that involved usability testing with a cloud-based product used by IT administrators to manage virtual infrastructure. The challenge for me was how do I test a technical product when I have minimal technical knowledge of that product? How do I moderate a session with SMEs who know more about virtual infrastructures than I do? Ultimately, UX consultants are not domain experts, but experts in a process.

Well, here are some tips I learnt along the way:

  1.  Read! Read! Read!…then read some more! Read any document related to the product – the user guide, FAQs, marketing and presales information, reviews, internal documents, manuals etc. The more you know about the product before testing the better. 
  1. Talk to the experts. Have a SME &/or technical product manager walk you through every aspect of the product. And remember to ask a million questions as they do it (no matter how dumb they may sound). 
  1. Repeat information back to the client or respondent for clarity. This technique can be incorporated at all stages of the project to ensure you are correctly interpreting and understanding information. Study skills research has shown reiterating information given to you increases comprehension and recall of that information.     
  1. Be up-front. If you don’t know, acknowledge it up-front to respondents. At the beginning of each session, I highlighted the fact that I was not an IT expert and my technical knowledge of the product was limited. Rather my role as a researcher is to understand how they interact with the product. In return, respondents tended to use simpler words & provided additional explanations when expressing their thoughts, which helped my understanding of the issues.
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