“A pro surfer stays ahead of a huge wave” Image credit: Monica Kade

Staying Ahead of the Wave

Formative vs. Summative Usability Studies

2 ½ minute read

When looking at usability studies, you can generally lump them into two groups: Formative studies and summative studies. We’ve been talking about them this week and I thought I’d share a little bit about our approach.

Formative Studies

Formative studies, as the name implies, tend to happen at the beginning of the design process and are used to help guide the product in the right direction. They are a key part of the iterative design process, where you’re generating design ideas, testing them, and adjusting the design on the fly.

These types of test are generally fast and loose, incorporating paper prototypes, wireframes, semi-functional prototypes, and the like.

Formative studies are great because they tell you what works in a design and they allow you to quickly get feedback as you progress.

Summative Studies

On the other end of the spectrum, summative studies usually happen when the product is in a more complete state; often already deployed and in the hands of customers.

Summative studies tend to follow the format and structure that you usually think of when you hear about usability tests: A participant and a moderator sitting in a room performing a task-oriented usability test on a computer; usually recorded.

These studies focus on the current state of a product and tell you what works and what doesn’t. As such, they are often performed prior to a redesign, to establish a baseline, or just prior to a new release of a product.

Which Do We Use?

In a perfect world, we’d do a balance of formative and summative studies when developing a product. However, the real world often dictates that we don’t have the luxury of time or resources to do a lot of formative studies. Our usability and research teams are usually chasing the design, which means that we do a lot more reactive usability studies than proactive.

Being on the Marketing team means that we’re usually getting projects handed to us long after the product we’re trying to support has been designed and implemented. Sometimes we only have a few weeks to get our own product designed, implemented, tested, and into the hands of customers (our builders and calculators are good examples).

As such, we’re usually doing minimal testing in the formative stage; opting instead to get the product into customers' hands, and then following up with summative testing, the results of which get rolled into the next revision of the product. Ultimately, it’s the same idea you’re after with formative testing, but the iterations are much longer (and more formal).

As the saying goes, something is better than nothing. And this method strikes a decent balance for us. A balance between meeting deadlines and getting customer feedback on our digital Marketing products.

How About You?

What process do you use? I’d love to hear how you get your products designed, tested, and implemented. Drop me a line and let me know!

What are your thoughts? Join me in the conversation over on Threads , Bluesky Social , or Mastodon .

Originally published September 10, 2016
File under: ux  usability  research