Whenever possible, I try to test user interfaces with real users. This gives me a much better sense of what people don’t understand, which helps me write better help. I don’t generally have the resources to run concerted usability studies, but even observing a single user can be very enlightening.

After reading Jakub’s “Killing Mode Switch” post, I was concerned about how discoverable this would be. I decided to do a quick test of our current overview. My test subject was a college-educated but non-technical Windows/Office user. I sat her in front of an empty workspace and said “Open the System Monitor application from the Activities overview.” Note that I was very exact in my language, because that’s how we say it in the help. I’m testing our instructions as much as I’m testing the UI. I also intentionally chose an application that you need to scroll to access.

She immediately saw and clicked Activities. She didn’t know about the hot corner. I think that’s OK. A hot corner on a target you click anyway is easily accidentally discovered. She then scrubbed the icons on the dash, reading the tooltips. So there’s a +1 that users readily recognize the dash as where application launchers live. Of course, I didn’t give her an application that’s in the dash, so it wasn’t there.

I watched her mouse and eye/head movement as best I could. She did seem to look off to the right, where the workspace thumbnails live, but she didn’t activate them with the mouse. After looking for a couple seconds, she clicked on Applications. She scanned what was there for a moment, realized she had to scroll, and found and launched System Monitor. I didn’t time it, but it seemed like around ten seconds total.

She said afterwards that she was confused at first because she didn’t realize that Windows and Applications were “tabs” (her word) and that she could click on them. This seems to be a trend. At the Open Help doc sprint, a user didn’t realize she could click the “Account disabled” button next to Password in the Users settings panel. This is even in spite of the fact that she had just read the help instruction telling her to do so. It doesn’t look like a button. It doesn’t look clickable.

Pretty is good. But I fear that some of the prettiness is coming at the cost of discoverability. I realize I’m working with a very small sample size here, but the general notion of affordance of clickability is not new.

I don’t know how discoverable Jakub’s new design will be. The “…” button at least looks clickable, but I don’t know that its meaning is clear. (Phil and I will probably have a long argument about what the heck to call that thing in the help.) I really doubt people will grok the pager dots on the right. In fact, I’m not even sure how they work. But I can only speculate at this point.

I really encourage people to do these kinds of quick tests on real users. Just grab a random person and ask her to do a simple task. It takes a few minutes out of your day. You might be surprised at what people don’t see.