Thursday, December 18, 2008

Simplifying Demand Generation Usability Assessment: No Obvious Answers

My feelings are hurt, people. No one has commented on last week’s post about usability measurement. I know it’s not the world’s most fascinating topic but I really wanted some feedback. And I do, after all, know how many people visit the site each day. Based on those numbers, there are a lot of you who have chosen not to help me.

Oh well, no grudges here -- ‘tis the season and all that. I’m guessing the reason for the lack of comment is that the proposed methodology was too complex for people to take the time to assess and critique. In fact, the length of the post itself may be an obstacle, but that in turn reflects the complexity of the approach it describes. Fair enough.

So the question is, how do you simplify the methodology and still provide something useful?

- One approach would be to reduce the scope of the assessment. Instead of defining scenarios for all types of demand generation processes, pick a single process and just analyze that. Note that I said “single” not “simple”, because you want to capture the ability of the systems to do complicated things as well. This is a very tempting path and I might try it because it’s easy to experiment with. But it still raises all the issues of how you determine which tasks are performed by which types of users and how you account for the cost of hand-offs between those users. This strikes me as a very important dimension to consider, but I also recognize that it introduces quite a bit of complexity and subjectivity into the process. I also recognize that measuring even a single process will require measuring system set-up, content creation and other preliminary tasks. Thus, you still need to do a great deal of work to get metrics on one task, and that task isn’t necessarily representative of the relative strengths of the different vendors. This seems like a lot of effort for a meager result.

- Another approach would be to ask users rather than trying to run the tests independently. That is, you would do a survey that lists the various scenarios and asks users to estimate the time they require and how this is distributed among different user types. That sounds appealing insofar as now someone else does the work, but I can’t imagine how you would get enough data to be meaningful, or how you would ensure different users’ responses were consistent.

- A variation of this approach would be to ask vastly simpler questions – say, estimate the time and skill level needed for a half-dozen or so typical processes including system setup, simple outbound email campaign, setting up a nurturing campaign, etc. You might get more answers and on the whole they’d probably be more reliable, but you’re still at the mercy of the respondents’ honesty. Since vendors would have a major incentive to game the system, this is a big concern. Nor is it clear what incentives users would have to participate, how you screen out people with axes to grind, or whether users would be constrained by non-disclosure agreements from participating. Still, this may be the most practical of all the approaches I’ve come up with, so perhaps it’s worth pursuing. Maybe we get a sample of ten clients from each vendor? Sure they’d be hand-picked, but we could still hope their answers would accurately reflect any substantial differences in workload by vendor.

- Or, we could ask the vendors to run their own tests and report the results. But who would believe them? Forget it.

- Maybe we just give up on any kind of public reporting, and provide buyers with the tools to conduct their own evaluations. I think this is a sound idea and actually mentioned it in last week’s post. Certainly the users themselves would benefit, although it’s not clear how many buyers really engage in a detailed comparative analysis before making their choice. (For what it’s worth, our existing usability worksheet is the third most popular download from the Raab Guide site. I guess that’s good news.) But if the results aren’t shared, there is no benefit to the larger community. We could offer the evaluation kit for free in return for sharing the results, but I doubt this is enough of an incentive. And you’d still have the issue of ensuring that reported results are legitimate.

So there you have it, folks. I’m between a rock and a hard place. No matter how much I talk about usability, the existing Raab Guide mostly lists features, and people will use it to compare systems on that basis. But I can’t find a way to add usability to the mix that’s both objective and practical. Not sure where to go next.


Jep Castelein said...

I'd say that usability is too subjective to measure in an objective way. Every person has different expectations, and the only way to find out whether you like a system is to do a test run with scenarios that are important to you. So try it yourself in a demo system, not have the vendor do it in a custom demo, because then it always seems easy.

David Raab said...

Thanks Jep. I totally agree that buyers should try out the systems for themselves with their own scenarios. But I do think that specific tasks are objectively easier in some systems than others, and that this can be measured through formal usability testing. My problem is the cost and complexity of such tests, which make them impractical for a report such as the Raab Guide. The challenge is to find a reasonable alternative.