From MVP to Prototype: Usability Testing for Software Startups

By: Elizabeth Usovicz, General Manager of Transaction Commons, as part of a series she writes for ACA aimed at entrepreneurs, "Your Pitch is Just the Beginning."

In films and on television, characters routinely breeze through sophisticated software, easily cracking codes and accessing just-in-time information. In Jurassic Park, for example, thirteen year-old Lex Murphy reboots the park’s sophisticated computer systems - just after surviving a velociraptor attack in the kitchen. 

In the real world, software applications are not as user-accepted and intuitive. As reported in Fortune, a 2014 a survey of failed startups found that that 42% self-identified the reason for failure as lack of market need for their product.

Achieving a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is a great start towards developing a working prototype. In the gap between MVP and prototype, users’ impressions as they actually use the software are crucial to understanding what it will take to secure both market acceptance and the investor funding needed to fuel growth.

Simply put: if software is difficult to use, users won’t use it and will find other, easier-to-use options. Before you move full steam ahead into prototyping, consider conducting usability studies.

What are Usability Studies?

Usability studies are a form of qualitative market research, or tests designed to help a company observe what a user does when interacting with and through software.  Usability testing cuts through assumptions about the software and can help to avid potentially costly mistakes.

Startup MVP software is often built using a combination of off-the-shelf software and customized design/development – and often with the assumption that both will integrate in a way that users experience as seamless and simple to use.  Website designer/developer assumptions of ease of use can also vary considerably from what a user (or investor) considers user-friendly.

Optimally, a usability study is performed by an independent market research firm that recruits users, observes them in action and probes their behaviors. For startups, professionally conducted usability studies may be cost-prohibitive. You can still conduct your own usability testing by following the fundamentals.

Usability: The Basic Steps

  • Define the profile(s) of target users. Be specific about behavior attributes, including factors such as: frequency of usage and the activity’s performed and time to complete specific activities. Also consider relevant demographic attributes, which could include age, gender, knowledge expertise or computer literacy.

  • Identify a pool of 4-8 users for each user profile you develop.

  • Devise representative tasks, based the actions users ideally will perform in your software, and ask the users to perform these tasks.  Usability studies are conducted one-on-one with individual users, in either a laboratory setting, or in the environment from which the user would normally visit the site (such as in a home or office, or on a mobile device).

  • Observe each user as he/she performs the tasks. Let users make their own mistakes and don’t interrupt their tasks. User behaviors are valuable keys to improving the user experience.

  • Don’t guide the user through pages or functionality. The benefit of conducting usability is to discover how to optimize the software’s value from a user’s point of view – not to showcase cool design or functionality.

  •  When the user has completed each task, ask a series of open-ended questions.  Questions should focus on why a user did what they did, what they expected to happen when they did it, what they were thinking as the performed the task, and what they wanted to do but were not able to do.

Key factors to consider when assessing user behavior are:

  • How easy was it for users to use the software?
  • Where did they become frustrated or confused?
  • How quickly were they able perform the tasks?
  • How many errors did they make in performing the tasks?  What did they do when they made errors?
  • How satisfied were they with using the site?

Incorporating usability principles into the MVP-to-prototype process can help to create what a bright idea, unique design and programming alone may not: a user experience that results in market acceptance.