Interview with Paul Veugen, founder of the remote usability testing tool Usabilla
Paul Veugen is a fresh out of university entrepreneur and founder of the remote automated usability testing tool Usabilla.
Customers of Usabilla include some pretty big names like; The Discovery Channel, HowStuffWorks, Thomas Cook and the World Wildlife Fund, just to name a few.
Paul is a rare and gifted person; he’s a young and successful start-up founder and business person, he’s trained in Communications and Digital Media, and he’s a knowledgeable practitioner of usability and user experience. Studying Paul and learning about what he thinks is the next Big thing could be very useful information for anyone interested in the future of usability and UX.
Q1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?
My background is in Communication sciences. I studied Corporate Communication & Digital Media at Tilburg University (The Netherlands) and graduated just recently. I really enjoyed my time at Tilburg University and spent most of my time working, race-rowing, (including acting as the race-rowing Board member), and even some studying! I definitely learned the most about working for and with various people (clients) while running a large rowing club for a year as President of the board.
At the age of 15 I started working for a local web design firm, mainly focusing on design for SME’s in the southern part of Holland. I’ve worked for this company for almost ten years and choose my studies based on my early working experiences.
It didn’t take very long before I got a more leading role in the company and specialized more and more in strategy, user experience, and social media. The more I learned by practice, the more interested I became in research about entrepreneurship, user experience and usability. That’s when the business ideas for a new type of usability business started popping up in my head, and became more and more frequent.
Q2. How did you get into the usability field?
I started working as web designer at an early age and learned to design with the client and client’s customer in mind. When I just started I was spending most of my time on various tutorial sites to work on my technical skills in Photoshop and Illustrator. I quickly discovered that to successfully design a webpage you don’t need all the eye candy in Photoshop. With some very basic technical skills, for example using Photoshop or Illustrator, anyone could in theory design a webpage.
However, building beautiful and easy-to-use websites is completely in a different league.
When I realized my creativity and technical skills were not the most important limiting factor to a successful user experience, I started to focus more on topics like interaction design, usability, and user experience. I really enjoyed scanning and reading hundreds of blog posts a week on these and other interesting topics.
Q3. What is it about usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
I prefer to put usability in the bigger picture of user experience. I think usability is a more technical approach, where user experience expands the scope with aesthetics and attitude. If you only focus on usability and basic task performance, you could probably just simply build black and white, functional webpages with blue underlined text links.
I like the more complex relationships between desirability, usability, accessibility, value, credibility, and findability.
Q4. You founded the online usability testing tool Usabilla. What is Usabilla and why should someone use it?
Usabilla is a simple tool to collect valuable real-user feedback on any sketch, mockup, website, or image.
Participants perform simple tasks on your webpage or concept and can add points and notes. For example, You can ask participants;
“Click on the things that are the most important for you” or “Where would you click to find information about rates?”
Participants can answer these tasks by clicking anywhere on the screen to add a point and can add notes (‘Post-its’) to leave additional feedback.
You can use our tool to set up task orientated tests (example, “Where do you click if you’re interested in usability resources?”) and to collect feedback (example, “What’s important on this page and why?”). You can then analyze the test results with plots, heatmaps, and time per task.
Usabilla provides a really simple way to collect feedback from large numbers of users and can be used in any stage of the design process to test task performance.
Q5. As founder of Usabilla, what was your motivation for creating this tool – why did you believe Usabilla was needed?
Usability research is booming. There’s a large group of innovators and experts sharing their ideas and knowledge about testing.
In the past 15 years academic researchers wrote hundreds of interesting papers on usability testing and the pros and cons of different testing methods. There are many verified testing methods available, but most of us only focus on (lab based) best practices from just a handful of experts.
At the university I searched for a quick and dirty method to test my mockups. That’s when I first found out about the Plus-minus method for document evaluation. The idea for Usabilla is based on this method.
The Plus-minus method is a simple yet effective tool to collect feedback on a document. You ask participants to draw pluses and minuses on the document for the things they like and / or dislike. Afterwards you ask your participants why they added a plus or a minus. About ten years ago a researcher made a first attempt to adapt this method to the screen in a lab setting. We’ve used the method and translated it to a flexible remote tool.
We try to make it as simple as possible to test your (early) ideas, without slowing down your development cycles.
Most of our clients are usability experts, designers & developers, and online companies who made Usabilla part of their usability toolbox and combine our data with other tools to create a more complete picture of their users.
Q6. Usabilla is now out of Beta and a full-fledged paid service. What were some of the key learnings from your Beta days you believe made a difference to your current success?
We launched a first beta release of Usabilla less than a year ago (2009). Our first version was buggy, but it clearly showed our ideas about usability testing and what we were aiming at. We received very interesting Beta user feedback. This feedback and interesting use cases helped us to improve our product and fine-tune our ideas.
We received great suggestions for interesting tasks to use in a test. Using this feedback, we implemented new features, improved our test interface bit by bit, and made our platform scalable.
Our early Beta users turned out to be great ambassadors of our product. Our Beta period helped us to proof our concept and gain traction in the marketplace with their word of mouth and advocacy.
We’ve removed the Beta label by the end of December 2009 and launched our paid plans at the same time. This was just a formality. The months before our public launch we were already running interesting cases from a variety of users. Once we were (almost) sure that everything worked as planned and our service could deliver real value, we kicked off the public release.
We’re now still developing at the same pace. We try to push out new releases every two weeks. Many of the features and improvements we’re working on are based on the input of our users. Practice what you preach!
Q7. What advice do you have for other start-ups that wish to create an online service, whether usability related or otherwise?
I often meet other entrepreneurs working on what they call an exciting new business concept, who are afraid to share their genius idea with others. They spent months in their home offices with closed curtains and disconnected laptop to build their awesome concept into a wonderful company at least 1% of the world is craving for.
Only a few true geniuses are able to build a company like this, who have the network to plug their product or service. Everybody else is probably more likely to succeed if they start an open conversation and not hide their ideas.
Developing a company is about iteration. Trial and error. Listening to the eco-system you’re trying to become part of.
There’s a striking parallel between building a company and designing a website. Sure, some of us can close our eyes and ears and build a great website, but most of us could benefit greatly from a conversation with our potential users. A conversation helps you to understand your user and can give meaning to behavior. Building a company or a website is a combination of your vision and goals PLUS valuable input (both attitude and behavior) from your users.
Q8. What’s in the future for Usabilla, what changes or improvements are you working on?
We’re going to expand our development team and make an exciting roadmap for the upcoming months. Besides general improvements in the flow of our back-end we’re currently working on an API. This API allows you to retrieve all your test data and use it for example to create custom reports in Google Spreadsheets or import it into other usability tools.
The first version of our API will be ready by the end of April 2009. That’s just the beginning.
We plan to integrate Usabilla in large content management systems and combine our tests with other usability tools. Other features that have our attention at the moment are improving reports, testing user flows, and small performance improvements.
Q9. What do you think the next year to two years will bring for remote usability testing? Do you see it growing, if so by how much?
In 2009 a large number of remote usability testing services popped up. It’s interesting to see how these services all take their own approach to usability testing.
In my opinion there is no such thing as THE usability test. We’re data junkies combining multiple sources to learn from our users.
I expect an enormous growth of the entire usability market and remote research in particular. Innovators like the guys from Bolt|Peters (read their book ‘Remote Research‘ or get it with your Usabilla account) are paving the way and sharing their best practices with the world.
Usabilla currently works with researchers, designers and marketeers. They all share the same hunger for information to learn, improve, and optimize. Usability and user experience is hot.
I expect that remote usability research is going to show the same sort of growth as the analytics market showed a few years ago. Everybody can use Google Analytics and dive into the data to learn some basics about visitors. Remote testing services are the new analytics, providing additional insights in the behavior and/or attitude of users. These tools could be used by everyone for basic information, and become powerful new data sources for the usability professional.
Q10. What’s next for you and your career in the next year or two, what would you like to focus on?
Every morning I wake up full of energy. I get really excited by working on Usabilla.
My focus for the upcoming two years will be Usabilla. I want to spent my time building something that provides value to our users and their customers. I want to expand our eco-system. One of the most stimulating things for me is meeting new people, both online and face-to-face, and learning from them on a daily basis.
I plan to attend some great events in Europe (be sure to check out UX-LX in Portugal) and the U.S. in the upcoming months to meet people and share ideas on usability & user experience. And you can always feel free to connect with me (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN) if you would like to share your ideas about user experience, usability, and business.
Thank you Paul!
For more information about Usabilla, or to try the service out, be sure to check out their free test.