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User Acceptance Testing Can Improve Your Website's Chances

by Glen Emerson Morris
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In the usual rush to get commercial Websites online in a hurry, two aspects essential for success are often overlooked; quality assurance and user acceptance testing. While QA is the most understood, even if often ignored, user acceptance testing is equally important and far less expensive to implement.

The definition of user acceptance testing varies considerably. In some cases, it's defined simply a set of tests a software application or Website must pass before delivery is accepted by the end user. A more comprehensive approach to UAT involves the end users at every stage of the development process, and for the purposes of testing business and e-commerce Websites, this is the definition that should be used.

UAT is different from quality assurance because it addresses issues that QA doesn't, like how easy and intuitive a Website is to use rather than just the issue of whether the Website's basic features work or not. It's possible to have a Website that passes all QA tests for basic functionality but is so hard to use that it virtually chases customers away. There are many Websites like this on the Internet, and the profits they cost companies would probably cover the cost of adequate UAT several times over.

The reason so many commercial Websites fail on the issue of usability is primarily due to the fact that commercial Websites are usually designed by one group of people to be used by another group of people. Unlike employees who have to use whatever technology their managers decide to supply them with, consumers generally have a choice, and if one commercial Website is too hard to use, they'll head for an easier to use competitor's Website nearly every time. The trick is to make sure your company's Website is one of the easy to use ones. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, but if you adopt one of the standard UAT methodologies the goal is well within reach.

To begin the UAT process, visit some of the UAT Websites on the Web and download one of the UAT document templates that seems to fit your project's needs. Chose with care. Most of the documentation available on UAT is aimed at companies setting up Websites for in house use. This means the UAT format assumes that the end users will have a good idea of what they want, and that they will have the ability to express those needs clearly, and in business terms. Businesses developing Websites for use by consumers, or other businesses, face an entirely different situation because it's difficult to involve consumers in anything but the final product, or at best a beta of the final Website.

To overcome this issue, one or more employees should be designated to represent the end user consumers at every step of the development process. This will add to the development cost, but it will be well worth it. The virtual end users assigned to the project don't necessarily need to be high paid employees, just people who are representative of the end user. Even sales clerks or secretaries will do for Websites selling general consumer goods. For B2B Websites, white collar workers might be more appropriate.

After the basic requirements for the Website are determined and the interface defined, mockups of the Website be evaluated by virtual end users for ease of use. It's a lot easier to correct ease of use issues in the early stages of the project than later, in terms of cost, programming effort and office politics.

Next, a series of use cases should be developed that specify the exact steps for every possible type of purchase consumers are likely to make. In a complex Website there may be many different paths to the checkout page, and all of them should be supported, but they frequently aren't.

Some use cases will be obvious, some won't. Sometimes the steps will be direct, as when a consumer visits the Website, searches for a specific product, finds it, puts it in their shopping cart and checks out, never having more than one window open at a time. Other times consumers may have several windows open to compare different products, and wind up adding several products to their shopping cart only to delete all but one when they make their final decision. These two different use cases may require significantly different ways of handling cookies in the Website's code, and the Website must be able to handle both cases, along with many, many others.

A good way to keep track of the different paths a consumer may travel through the Website is to create a flow chart for each use case. This will make the consumer's path through the Website, and the coding logic required to support it, much easier to follow. Once the flow charts have been created it's easy to create formal and documented use cases based on them so the QA team can perform them for each iteration of the Website. (The virtual end users should be able to perform some of the use case testing, but most of the testing should be done by the QA team members because only they have the skills to adequately find, isolate and document the defects they find.)

It's a bad idea to assume the QA team will be able to create adequate use cases for a business process they may not understand, especially if an offshore QA team is involved. There's a story told in Silicon Valley of an offshore testing effort focused on an application for tracking and paying business expenses. The project was short on documentation, and when the Indian QA team members were asked to simulate using a credit card to cover expenses on a series of business trips, things didn't go well. It turned out the problem was: A, no one in the group had ever had a credit card, and B, none of them had ever been on a business trip.

Chances are, your project will go better, and it will be worth the effort. Even if user acceptance testing may be new to your company, it's a process every business Website should be subjected to. Like quality assurance, UAT pays off when you use, and it really costs if you don't.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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