Usability testing: anyone can do it!

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s research studying website usability test sizes finds that five users will reveal approximately 85% of usability problems on a website (“Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users”). This statistic is based on the likelihood that a single user would identify 31% of the problems. If only five users can reveal a majority of usability issues, this statistic indicates that user testing does not need to be extensive or expensive to be effective.

As a designer, I appreciate this statistic because a website’s usability (how easy it is to use) affects the design and ultimately the performance of a digital product. Design aesthetics (visual appeal) is important but means nothing if the product fails to work for the user. Poorly designed websites yield frustrated, disengaged users and low conversion rates. On the other hand, well-designed, user-friendly sites build brand credibility, audience retention and loyalty, and increase conversions.

As a communicator who manages digital properties for a program with scarce resources, I appreciate this statistic because the return on investment is high. Very often, budget is a barrier to testing and optimization. But it doesn’t have to be; one user can discover a third of a site’s usability problems. While five is the optimum number of test users from a cost-benefit analysis, any testing is better than none. “The most striking truth…is that zero users give zero insights,” Nielsen says.

A great opportunity for user testing is in pairing the qualitative data it provides with quantitative data in website optimization. Marketers look to analytics tools like Google Analytics because they offer plenty of easy-to-access quantitative data about who is visiting a website, how they got there and their behavior during visits. User testing can help marketers understand why they see these numbers and how to improve them, leading to informed decisions for site improvements.

Another significance of the feasibility of user testing is the benefit of testing competition. In testing five users, one can easily and cheaply evaluate how websites perform compared to competitors. By learning what others are doing and not doing well, marketers can focus on design changes that will help the site gain a competitive advantage.

Nielson’s study further indicates that a person does not need to be a usability expert to do usability testing or to understand key usability principles. Anyone can gain valuable information and any site can be improved from user testing. Combined with analytics, usability testing and analysis provide context and direction for making findings actionable. Usability testing does not need to be extensive or expensive to provide digital designers and communicators with useful insights to improve the design and efficiency of web products.

Sweet Potato Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Bacon, or the best thing I ever baked

Sweet Potato Cupcakes sprinkled with Salted Caramel Bacon

Download PDF of recipe here

Sweet potato cupcakes

Let me start by giving credit where credit is due. The idea for this recipe came from my sister, Grace, who wanted a sweet potato and caramelized bacon cake for her 24th birthday. So I started with a Food Network recipe for sweet potato cake, and from there, made it up as I went along. My first stop was our local gourmet food store, A Southern Season, where I sampled every type of bacon they sell and searched for the perfect paper cupcake liners as well as the scrumptious caramel sauce I tasted in the store last fall. Making it up as you go along is risky. My experiments in the kitchen don’t always turn out as beautiful or delicious as this one. But with an extra serving of patience and one open afternoon—voilà! A pretty perfect recipe for sweet potato cupcakes with sea salted caramel bacon.

RECIPE:  Makes 18-24 cupcakes


  • One 15 (or 16)-ounce can sweet potatoes (Farmer’s Market Sweet Potato Puree)
  • 2 cups organic all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup organic unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup pure cane sugar
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Cream cheese frosting (make your own or buy a tub)
  • 1/2 pound of bacon, thinly sliced
  • Sea salted caramel (Red Light Chocolates Sea Salt and Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a cupcake pan (or two) with paper liners, and set aside.

Spread thin slices of bacon on baking sheet(s) lined with aluminum foil. Cook bacon in the oven until done. Watch carefully so that the bacon is crispy. Do not burn. Pat grease from bacon with paper towels when you remove from oven. Let bacon cool.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger and nutmeg.

In a large bowl, whisk together butter, brown sugar and pure cane sugar. Beat in eggs. Add the dry ingredients. Whisk in sweet potato purée. Fill cupcake liners in prepared pan(s) with batter (3/4 full).

Bake cupcakes until golden (tops will spring back when touched and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean), 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool.

Crumble bacon into pieces. Heat a large spoonful of sea salted caramel in microwave for 10 seconds. Toss bacon pieces in caramel sauce.

Lightly frost the cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. Sprinkle with pieces of salted caramel bacon.


Proof of something or nothing

Miranda July is just as “infused with wonder at the things of the world” as her artwork is, to quote author George Saunders. She and her work are concerned with truths, aliveness, and the idiosyncrasies of the human condition. Which is what makes her art so beautiful, surprising, peculiar and engaging. In her Pretty Cool People Interviews segment, she marvels at being able to capture and archive human truths, particularly in Learning To Love You More but which is something I think she does across her work. Using her words, it is “the mutual recognition of truths between strangers” that gives us “proof of something”, something of meaning or possibly no meaning. She blurs meaningfulness and meaninglessness, the real and the surreal, turning everything she touches into an art form. Her work takes something simple and everyday and makes it profound, like The Hallway, causing the audience to be conscious of how we see and think about ourselves and our relationships with others and to the world around us. You can see and feel this through the artistic freedom she bares in the scope of her work.

Review of her book No One Belongs Here More Than You to come. Its interactive website is here.

Interactive still life?

Just spotted: Digital artist Scott Garner turns a “still life” into an interactive piece of art with a game development program called Unity 3D and a motion sensing frame. Check out his work here. Traditionally, a still life is a painting or drawing of an arrangement of objects, which are inanimate and everyday. I hadn’t ever thought of a still life as anything more than static. But like we’ve pointed out numerous times, technology is pushing our ideas and the norms we’ve held about art. Interestingly, Wikipedia’s definition recognizes the expansion of its definition/genre in the 21st century with the rise of computer, digital, and mixed media art. The article shows a nice progression of the still life genre through the centuries. The Getty Museum’s past exhibtion The Still Life in Photography also explores the redefinition of the genre through photographs.

Truth in light

There is a truth in light. That is, you only get light by burning material. The light that you get is representative of what is burned. So whether you take hydrogen or helium, as in the sun, or whether you decide to burn xenon in a bulb, or neon, or tungsten wire, something must be burned to get this light. – James Turrell

Digital brings new forms, language and accessibility

Like the myriad traditional media I studied as a studio art major, there are many different forms of art in the digital realm. I first encountered, and then created, digital art as a journalism student (double major) studying visual communication, which includes graphics, information visualization, multimedia and web design. Not only are these pieces of art, they are pieces of communication. I found that overlap fascinating (and it’s why I chose to double major in art and journalism). Art is a form of communication. It is about seeing and translating, making impressions and sharing a view of the world. The medium is a way of doing that. It’s a matter of differing processes and forms. I have seen traditional art that is “cold and antiseptic” and also digital art that is “exciting and innovative”. Art that informs and inspires conversation and experience is art that is exciting and innovative.

The text talks about the artist and the computer in the first chapter, but since it was published, we’ve seen the birth of new technologies for making art: the smart phone and the tablet. Jorge Colombo is one of many artists I know who create works on his iPhone. Is he drawing, or is he painting? David Hockey also does “drawings” on his iPhone, as well as with his computer. An iPhone and iPad user myself, I have experimented with the different art and design apps. They have different tools, brushes, markers, pastels, erasers, blending sticks, palate knives, et. al and you can use a mixture of these to design a digital piece. When I play with these materials on my iPhone or iPad, do I call this designing? Or drawing, or painting? Doodling? Is it even art? These new technologies are forming a new language around art and the defnition and conventions of digital art.

What I truly appreciate about the rise of the digital age is increased accessibility to art, to artists, to museums, and also to owning original art. And for artists, the opportunity to, like the text said, bypass the traditional art world to distribute one’s work. Manhattan gallery owner Jen Bekman started the 20×200 project to enable people to own original prints by accomplished artists for as little as 20 bucks. Artspace also sells fine contemporary art at affordable prices. Museums and other cultural instituions are designing virtual exhibitions and exhibition microsites to spread their reach beyond traditional visitors. The Guggenheim Museum has just launched online publications. The Google Art Project allows us to explore the physical space of museums and their collections online. The Internet, social media, and digital and mobile technologies have done our society and culture the good service of bringing art out of the museums to the people, where, I will argue to say, it belongs.