Interesting to note a comment I see repeated when I ask open source software folks about usability: "I'm not a usability expert." But you don't need to be a usability expert to apply usability to open source software. As Redish said to me in our interview, you can learn a lot just by sitting down with a user, and watching them use the software. You don't need to be a usability expert to grab a friend or family member, and ask them to try out a scenario for 15 minutes.
But not everyone is so easily convinced of the value of usability testing. A List Apart discusses this topic (July 31, 2012). From the article:
Like any research method, though, usability testing has its drawbacks. Most importantly, it isn’t cheap. In a classic study, you’ve got the expenses of developing the testing plan, recruiting and compensating the participants, sometimes even travel. Even remote testing—which has its limitations—can be expensive, because analysis of the testing data is still no easy feat. In fact, analysis is often the biggest component of the project. Going through all those testing videos and cataloging the qualitative data just can’t be sped up without undermining the integrity of the study.
Fortunately, we have other usability research methods at our disposal. The standouts, expert review and heuristic evaluation, are both easy to add to a design and development process almost regardless of budget or resource concerns. Both involve minimal costs, as compared to full-scale usability testing, with expert review in particular being scalable to almost any project. For projects with fuller budgets, both techniques can maximize the cost-benefit ratios of subsequent usability testing.
The article highlights "discount usability engineering" which is basically a "heuristic review" where a usability expert evaluates an information product (such as a website) across several areas, including:
- Appearance: The appeal and effectiveness of the site’s look and feel, from major layout features to small typographical details.
- Content: The quality and strategic significance of the site’s content—including not only page copy but page metadata, PDFs and other files, and element-specific content (e.g., image descriptions).
- Interface Usability: Ease of use of the site’s interactive components, from the simplest navigation structures to the most complex forms.
- Accessibility and Technology: On a basic level, the site’s ability to adapt to diverse user needs, encompassing not only accessibility guidelines compliance but also browser compatibility and mobile- and tablet-friendliness.
While I (personally) view in-person usability tests as being the most useful, if you have experienced usability experts who can help you, doing a heuristic review can identify the "low hanging fruit" on your design - which will result in a better end product.