Usability Testing: When to Start, How to Prepare, and What to Expect of Your Users

The importance of Usability testing on any website

If you’re familiar with usability testing, then you’ve almost certainly heard the recommendation to “test early and test often.” As an intrepid designer, engineer, or product owner, you know that testing frequently with real live users is the surest way to prove and improve the quality of your product. From developing a sizzling new app to undertaking a responsive website redesign, usability testing is both applicable and beneficial throughout the life of your digital product.

Christine Perfetti of UIE (User Interface Engineering) illuminates the power of usability testing: “When development teams start watching users interact with their designs, they’ll typically see two possible outcomes, both positive. In some instances, usability tests confirm the team’s existing beliefs about how users will use their products. But, in the much more common outcome, teams observe users experiencing problems with the design and identify gaping holes in their assumptions.”

Start early, get feedback, repeat

We recommend starting usability testing once your product vision has begun to take shape. The earlier you start, the easier it is to make quick and painless changes. Depending on the project, usability testing is appropriate after discovery, initial user experience design, graphic design, or development. Testing can also continue after your product is live - seek out and act on user feedback so that you can make iterative improvements.

If you’re redesigning an existing product, you already have the raw materials for success; test your current app or website with your target audience. If you’re creating a brand new product, you’re going to need a paper prototype, clickable wireframe/mockup, or coded prototype to test with your target audience. In all cases, you’ll be using the data gathered from your test participants to inform your next steps.

Process makes perfect

Task analysis is our preferred testing method. It can be formal or informal, broad or specific. Tasks are the actions users will take to achieve goals within your system. The aim of task analysis is to ask participants to complete specific tasks using your existing product or prototype. You will observe and record participants as they attempt to complete tasks to understand where your users are succeeding, failing, or behaving in unanticipated ways.

Before testing, identify your target audience. What specific group of people are going to use your product? Personas (archetypes of your users) and user stories (user goals and the tasks they must do to achieve them) can help you answer this question if you don’t already know. Next, you’re going to need to recruit 8-12 members of your target audience to participate in your usability test. We recommend two options: you can use your own user base or you can recruit users yourself. We find using a short job posting on Craigslist with a link to a survey to identify respondents that match your target audience works best.

Extra credit: learn more about recruitment in Brenden Mulligan’s excellent post on TechCrunch:

Preparation and tools

Prepare your testing device (computer or mobile phone) and recording equipment (audio, video, or screen recorder) and print out your list of tasks (paper is great for this one). You’ll also benefit from writing a script for your test: introduce yourself, then explain what is being tested and how the results will be used. Superb! You’re ready to observe users as they perform tasks using your system.

tools for usablilty testing

We especially love the IPEVO USB Document Camera for usability testing because it’s unobtrusive and easy to use. It allows us to record not only the device screen, but also the user’s hands as they interact with the device.

Ready to test

Now you’re ready to run your usability test. Explain to participants why you’re running the test and what will be done with the data you gather. You value participants’ time, so pay them or incentivize participation by holding a drawing for a digital gift card. As you observe the test, ask participants to think aloud. The thought process behind a user’s actions will help you gain a deeper understanding of both the delightful and dreadful things about your product. You’re looking for spontaneous, natural reactions from participants as they explain their thinking. Definitely avoid biasing participants - don’t ask leading questions or reveal your own opinions about the product or tasks being tested. This can be harder than you think!

By employing usability testing, you can gather data to validate a concept, develop new functionality, or change and improve any pain points of your product. If you work with a firm or agency to execute your testing, they will facilitate the usability testing process, analyze results, and report the findings to you (with as much or little detail as you need).

A foundation for usability testing

Lay the foundation for successful usability testing early by clearly defining who your users are and the goals they want to achieve with your system. Emphasize testing prototypes rather than finished products. Get ready to test by recruiting representative participants and preparing testing materials and equipment. Finally, conduct task analysis and think-aloud testing and analyze your results. Gain a competitive advantage by discovering early on if your users are achieving their goals, falling flat and feeling frustrated, or going above and beyond your wildest expectations.

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