User Research Techniques: Usability Testing

Usability testing @ sketchin

Usability testing @ sketchin (Photo credit: lucamascaro)

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a user research technique where the researcher observes participants using the website or application as the participant performs tasks. Usability testing is held in the highest esteem of all user research methodologies.

Why conduct usability testing?

The real question of usability testing is, “why wouldn’t you?” Low cost, easy to do, and you’ll find more information about your users than you ever thought you would. And the more often you conduct usability testing, the more you will get from it. The truth is there is no excuse to not conduct usability testing; the only way you know if your interface really works is if you see people outside of your organization using your product. Conduct usability testing with wireframes, compositions, prototypes, and fully working sites and apps.

Usability testing will clarify user expectations and attitudes, and if you use your own users you can also reveal goals, motivations, and resources. If you memorize the cognitive model of conversion, you can very clearly see during a usability testing where the participant is in the process and at which points they are getting stuck.

If you could only use one method to conduct user research for your organization, usability testing would be it.

How do I conduct usability testing?

The number of options for conducting usability testing are endless.

Some organizations set up expensive labs for usability testing, but this really is not necessary for most. Instead, find five to eight people who are interested in the industry your app or site is in who don’t know it yet, and ask them to use it for 10-15 minutes. Ask them to do tasks with your site. Ask them to speak their thoughts out loud. This guerilla-style usability testing is one of the best things you can do. Iterative usability testing, meaning switching between making changes and conducting usability testing, will find the majority of the significant issues and opportunities with your site or app.

More options seem to pop up every day too. Remote usability testing is becoming more and more popular, as it gives you a better opportunity to test with your own users. Testing with your own users will reveal more about how your site or app is used and the problems that your regulars are facing. Some remote usability testing tools involve live video chat with screen sharing, some do it by recording videos of the user’s screen, while others ask participants in an interactive format and records their mouse movements and keyboard strokes. All of these methods have a context in which they are useful. We’ll being doing a post specifically on remote usability test in the coming weeks.

Some of the more inventive testing tools out there ask participants to do things such as mark the first thing that grabs their attention, other ask users to show where on a wireframe or comp where they’d expect an element placed. These tools may have more limited use cases but are very useful in specific contexts.

What are the limits of usability testing?

Because usability testing is often conducted with a few participants, usability testing is more qualitative than quantitative. I wouldn’t rely on it to try to get a representative view of all your users; surveys and card sorts are better for this type of information. The quantitative techniques compliment usability testing; usability testing tends to tell you why, but not how much. Ultimately, the best conclusions come from repeated findings using a variety of techniques. That said, usability testing answers more questions than any other technique.

What do I need to know to conduct usability testing?

If you’re not conducting usability testing yet, just getting started is the most important thing you can do. It takes time to learn the patience it takes when users get frustrated or confused, but it doesn’t take long to get good at conducting usability tests. You’ll never get it perfect, but conducting usability testing is more important than any mistakes you’ll make along the way.

Resist the temptation to tell users how to do a task. Try to remove your own biases; ask open-ended, non-leading questions and listen. Keep the participant talking. Let people know you’re testing the site or app, not them. Watch for when the participants look concerned, when they are fluttering their eyeballs around the screen, and when they hesitate or pause; these are the moments that truly matter. Some researchers avoid identifying with their real organization as this can help participants be more honest. I’d avoid using participants who often take part in usability testing.

Above all else, make usability testing easy for your organization to conduct. You want to be in a constant state of preparing for the next usability test, and the best way to make usability testing a habit is to make it easy. Using your own users as participants, and getting an automated way to conduct tests will make sure you conduct usability testing more often.

Resources and links

The future post on remote usability testing will offer more tools and resources for that type of usability testing. The following links and resources are for all types of usability testing, as well as in-person usability testing.