The Mom Test

This is kind of Part II to my last post – I don’t think I have it all out of my system yet.  :)

Usability issues make me think of what I call The Mom Test. All the developers who have worked for me kind of roll their eyes when they hear that phrase, since I talk about it with every new developer and they’ve all heard it many times.

The Mom Test involves imaging my mother, sitting down in front of the computer to try to use what I have created. Would it confuse her, frighten her? Would she instinctively know what to do, where to click? That is The Mom Test. You can say that it’s catering to the lowest common denominator, and in a sense that’s true…and it’s not a bad thing. A transactional site shouldn’t be an intelligence test or a challenge of your intuition. The user is there to DO something, buy a product or access a forum or check on account status. Get in, get what you need, get out.

Large sites will pay for usability testing, which is quite expensive, involved, and horribly eyeopening. The company that handles the testing will arrange for a range of paid volunteers who hopefully reflect major cross-sections of your customer base. They are given certain directives, things that they have to accomplish on the site. Each one sits at a PC, and two views are recorded: one view showing what they are doing onscreen, and one view showing their face and recording what they say.

Almost invariably, it’s a shock. Things that you think would be screamingly obvious to any reasonably computer literate person are ignored. They are blind to huge glowing Login or Buy Now buttons, and you can see their eyes searching all over the screen.  “Where is it? I don’t know what you want me to do here.” You feel gutted, but you learn so much.

And, as a really practical example of the Mom Test, you can actually set your parents down in front of your site. (Or any older person who you know is not an internet whiz.) Is it intuitive enough for them to figure out? Then you’ve passed the test.  :)



3 thoughts on “The Mom Test”

  • Microsoft paid for actual usability testing for Asheron’s Call’s UI during its initial development. AC1 is the only MMO I’ve heard of that did that whole process. I had some of the tapes stored under my desk for awhile. Fascinating stuff — and so incredibly valuable!

    Unfortunately there was (and still is) a fundamental disconnect between what the developers of an MMO think is their target audience and their actual audience. In AC1’s case, that meant a very usable UI and a completely impenetrable game. For more modern games — say EQ2 for example — the game is somewhat less impenetrable but the UI is so incredibly obscure that it defeats even veteran players.

  • That’s very interesting – I know absolutely nothing about game testing, but it would be fascinating. And I think on any project, web or game, there is always a disconnect between projected target audience and actual audience, and what they need. God knows, I’ve gotten it wrong many times.

    In relation to user testing, I did have the experience of introducing a bunch of suits (management/sales) to Warcraft, which I used as an example since I had it on my work PC. (We were at the time developing 3D areas for a social networking site using X3D.) It was hilarious. “You see that wolf there? Hit it. No, you have to face it. Yes, that guy just called you an asstard, I’ll explain later. Yes, we can explore, but you better finish killing that wolf first, he’s chewing on you.”

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