Writing your user test plan: open-ended vs. specific tasks and questions

Posted on May 18, 2015
13 min read


In any successful user experience study, you’ll need to write a foolproof test plan to guide users through the tasks and questions that will give you the insights you need.

Designing your user test plan isn’t always easy. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and the tasks and questions you should ask are going to depend on what your objective is.

A task is an action or activity that you want your user to accomplish, and questions are used to elicit some form of feedback from the user in his or her own words. Sometimes it’s best to leave tasks and questions open-ended, and in other situations, you need to be more specific.

In this article, I’m going to use examples to explain the difference between open-ended and specific tasks and questions. I’m also going to show you when to use each one, and pitfalls to watch out for. Let’s get started.

Open-ended tasks and questions

Open-ended tasks and questions provide minimal guidance to your test participants on how to perform the task or answer the question. The primary goal is to observe how users naturally interact with the product to uncover their genuine reactions and solutions. This approach can lead to a wide range of responses, highlighting the diversity in user behavior and preferences.

Examples and their importance

Imagine you are conducting usability testing for a newly developed fitness app. Your aim is to gauge initial reactions and understand what users naturally prioritize when introduced to such an app.

Open-ended task:

"Please spend 5 minutes exploring the app as if you just downloaded it for the first time. Feel free to use any features that catch your interest and navigate the app as you normally would."

This task is designed to let participants interact with the app without any preconceived notions about what to expect. It helps identify which features attract immediate attention and are intuitively used by new users.

Open-ended question:

"After exploring, what activities or features would you expect to be able to do with this fitness app? What stood out to you during your exploration?"

This question encourages users to reflect on their experience and express what they perceive as the app’s capabilities. It provides insights into user expectations and whether the app’s design intuitively communicates its functions.

Additional example:

Open-ended task:

"Try to set up a workout plan using the app. Don’t worry about making it perfect—just approach it as you would if you were really planning to follow this routine."

This task allows you to see how users interact with the planning features of the app. It can reveal how accessible and flexible the app is for personalization, which is crucial for fitness apps.

Open-ended question:

"Describe how you found the process of setting up your workout plan. What was helpful, and what, if anything, was frustrating?"

This follow-up question helps unearth detailed feedback on the user-friendliness of the workout planning process. It highlights areas where the app succeeds in user engagement and areas where improvements are necessary.

Benefits of open-ended tasks and questions

Using open-ended tasks and questions in usability testing is particularly beneficial when you need to:

  • Understand the first impression and instinctive interactions of users with a new product.
  • Identify natural pathways and potential stumbling blocks within the app without the influence of guided tasks.
  • Collect a broad spectrum of user responses, which can lead to more comprehensive improvements in the app’s design.

Analyzing diverse responses

The varied responses generated by open-ended tasks can provide a wealth of qualitative data. Analyzing this data involves looking for common themes and unusual user behaviors that could indicate innovative ways to enhance the app's design or highlight critical usability issues.

When to use open-ended tasks and questions

Open-ended tasks and questions are a powerful tool in usability testing, particularly useful in several key scenarios:

Find areas of interest

When the focus of your test is not yet defined, open-ended tasks can illuminate aspects of your product that engage or confuse users. This method allows users to interact with the product in a natural, unrestricted manner, revealing what features they gravitate towards and why. The insights gathered can then be used to direct more targeted follow-up tests, focusing on the areas that users found most compelling or problematic.

Exploratory research

If you are in the early stages of product development or entering a new market, open-ended tasks and questions can provide a wealth of information about how users interact with your product and the challenges they encounter. This type of research is invaluable for mapping out user behavior patterns and understanding the user experience from a broad perspective.

Identify usability issues

Open-ended exploration is particularly effective for identifying usability issues within a product. By allowing users to navigate the product without specific instructions, you can discover areas where users hesitate, get confused, or fail to utilize features as intended. This approach often uncovers subtle interaction problems that are not evident in more structured testing environments.

Benefits and strategic application

Using open-ended questions and tasks in these scenarios offers several benefits:

  • Comprehensive insight: You gain a holistic view of how users interact with the product in their own way and on their own terms.
  • User-centric design data: The feedback is grounded in genuine user preferences and difficulties, which is crucial for creating user-centric designs.
  • Flexibility in early stages: They are especially useful in the early phases of design, where rigid testing parameters may not yet be applicable.

Analyzing the findings

The data collected from open-ended tasks requires careful analysis since it tends to be diverse and voluminous. Look for patterns in how different users approach the product and note any recurring themes or significant outliers. Qualitative data analysis methods, such as thematic analysis, can be very effective in making sense of the varied responses.

Pitfalls to watch out for

While open-ended tasks and questions are incredibly useful in usability testing, there are several potential pitfalls that you need to manage to ensure you derive maximum value from your research:

Clearly define your test objective

Even with the flexibility of open-ended questions, it is critical to have a clear research objective. Without a specific goal, participants may engage with the product in ways that are not informative for your current research needs. For instance, if your objective is to determine whether users can easily find a specific feature or product, then even an open-ended task should be designed to guide users towards that area of interest, albeit subtly.


If testing a new e-commerce site, instead of a broad prompt like “explore the site,” you could say, “Imagine you’re shopping for a birthday gift for a friend. Please explore the site to find something you think they would like.” This provides direction but still allows for open-ended exploration.

Keep users talking

One of the main challenges with open-ended tasks is ensuring that participants verbalize their thought processes. This is crucial for understanding the reasoning behind their actions. Participants may not naturally articulate their thoughts and decisions while they navigate, especially if they are deeply focused. Regularly remind them to speak aloud about what they are doing and why, as this commentary is invaluable for interpreting their actions.


A useful technique is to conduct a brief pre-task briefing where you explain the importance of thinking aloud and maybe even demonstrate it. During the task, if a participant goes silent, gently prompt them with open-ended questions like, “What are you looking at now?” or “Tell me about your decision to click there.”

Good practice:

Reframe questions to ensure they are open and neutral. For example, instead of saying, “Did you enjoy the streamlined checkout process?” ask, “How would you describe your experience with the checkout process?” This change in phrasing helps in gathering genuine feedback without leading the participant towards a positive or negative response.

Analysis paralysis

The wealth of qualitative data generated from open-ended interactions can be overwhelming. To manage this, it’s important to have a structured approach to analyzing and synthesizing data. Identify key themes and patterns across different sessions, and consider using qualitative data analysis software to help organize and interpret the findings.

Maintaining focus

Despite the open-ended nature of the task, it's crucial to gently steer participants back on track if they stray too far from the objectives of the study. This balancing act ensures that you gather relevant data while still allowing for genuine user-driven interactions.

Specific tasks and questions

Specific tasks and questions provide clear guidance on the actions participants should take and the features they should evaluate. This approach narrows the focus of your research to specific aspects of your product, allowing you to gather detailed insights on particular functionalities or user experience elements.

Purpose and value

By directing users to interact with specific features, you can obtain targeted feedback that is directly relevant to the areas of your product you are most interested in improving or understanding. This method is particularly valuable when you need to assess the usability or appeal of particular components or when testing updates and new features.

Examples and their impact

Continuing with the fitness app scenario, let's explore how specific tasks and questions can be structured to focus on particular functionalities.

Specific task:

"Please open the heart rate tracking feature of the app and use it to monitor your heart rate during a quick 2-minute exercise."

This task directs the participant to interact with a key feature of the app, ensuring that the feedback you receive will be about that specific functionality.

Specific question:

"Could you describe your experience using the heart rate tracking feature? What did you like or dislike about it?"

This question is open enough to encourage detailed feedback but focused on the heart rate tracker, which helps you collect specific insights into how this feature performs.

Additional example:

Specific task:

"Navigate to the workout planning section of the app and create a workout plan for the upcoming week."

This task guides users to another significant feature, allowing you to gather precise data on the app's utility in workout scheduling.

Specific question:

"How intuitive did you find the process of creating a workout plan? Were there any obstacles or points of confusion?"

The question focuses on the user experience of planning a workout, highlighting usability and design effectiveness.

Benefits of using specific tasks and questions

  • Focused feedback: Concentrates the user's attention on particular areas, increasing the relevance and depth of the feedback on those features.
  • Efficient testing: Reduces the scope of testing, which can lead to quicker, more focused sessions that are easier to analyze.
  • Comparative analysis: Allows for direct comparison before and after changes are made to a feature, providing clear data on whether the changes had the desired impact.

Strategies for effective implementation

When designing specific tasks and questions, it is crucial to ensure that they are clearly understood and that they align with the overall objectives of your usability testing. Ensure that instructions are concise and direct to avoid any confusion that might skew the results.

Analyzing specific feedback

The feedback from specific tasks should be analyzed with attention to detail. Look for trends in user satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and pay close attention to any unexpected difficulties or delights that users report. This focused analysis can lead to precise adjustments and improvements in the app's design and functionality.

When to use specific tasks and questions

Specific tasks and questions are invaluable tools in usability testing when your goal is to gain detailed insights into particular elements of your product. They are especially useful in the following scenarios:

Test specific features

To ensure that every feature within your product functions as intended and meets user expectations, specific tasks can be quite effective. By directing test participants to use a certain feature, you can gather targeted feedback that is both insightful and actionable.


Suppose you want to evaluate the effectiveness of a search function in an e-commerce application. You could ask participants, “Please use the search bar to find a pair of men’s black dress shoes in size 11.” This task not only tests the search feature but also helps understand how easily users can navigate results and refine their search parameters.

Complex products

For products that incorporate advanced technology or unique functionalities unfamiliar to the average user, specific tasks help in guiding the user through these complexities. This structured guidance can make the user experience more comprehensible and reveal critical areas where users might struggle without assistance.


In testing a new smart home device, you could instruct users, “Please configure the device to automatically turn on the living room lights when it detects your phone entering the house.” This task helps participants understand and interact with complex features while providing feedback on the setup process.

Conversion optimization

Specific tasks are crucial when you're trying to optimize the conversion funnel. If analytics indicate a drop-off at a certain stage, directing users through the process can provide insights into obstacles or confusion they encounter.


If users are abandoning their shopping carts, you might set a task like, “Please proceed to checkout with the items in your cart and try applying a discount code.” Observing participants as they navigate this part of your site can shed light on what might be disrupting the user flow or causing frustration.

Benefits of using specific tasks and questions

  • Precision: By focusing user activities on specific areas, you can obtain precise feedback that directly addresses your most pressing questions.
  • Problem identification: Specific tasks can help pinpoint problems in user flows and interactions that general usage might not reveal.
  • Efficiency: These tasks can make testing sessions more efficient by reducing the scope to only relevant areas, thereby speeding up both testing and analysis phases.

Implementing specific tasks effectively

When implementing specific tasks, it’s crucial to:

  • Clearly define and explain tasks to ensure users understand what is expected of them.
  • Use direct and straightforward language to avoid any ambiguity that might affect the user's ability to complete the task.
  • Be selective about the number of specific tasks in a single session to avoid overwhelming participants and diluting the focus of your study.

Analyzing results from specific tasks

After conducting specific tasks, analyze the data with a focus on:

  • The ease or difficulty users experience completing each task.
  • Any recurring patterns or comments that suggest broader usability issues.
  • Direct quotes and actions that illustrate user satisfaction or frustration with specific features.

Pitfalls to watch out for

When deploying specific tasks and questions in usability testing, it’s essential to navigate carefully to avoid common traps that could compromise the integrity and usefulness of your data. Here are some key pitfalls to be aware of:

Avoid giving exact instructions

While specific tasks are meant to guide users towards certain actions or features, it’s crucial to strike a balance between providing direction and allowing independent user interaction. Over-specifying every step can lead to mechanical responses that don’t accurately reflect a user’s natural behavior or preferences.


Instead of instructing, “Click on the menu, select settings, then adjust the brightness,” simplify the task to, “Adjust the brightness settings to your preference.” This approach lets you observe how intuitively users can navigate to the settings and whether the process is clear or requires improvement.

Avoid leading questions

Questions in usability testing should be crafted to elicit honest, unbiased responses. Leading questions can subtly influence how participants respond, skewing data in a way that supports a presumed outcome rather than revealing true user reactions.

Example of a leading question:

Asking, “How easy was it to use our new feature?” implies that the feature is expected to be easy to use. Instead, ask, “Can you describe your experience using the new feature?” This open-ended question allows for a range of responses that can provide deeper insights into the user's actual experience.

Subtlety in task design

Ensure that the tasks are designed to observe genuine user behaviors rather than just testing if a user can follow instructions. Allow room for the user to make decisions, explore, and even make mistakes, which are all valuable for learning about the usability and user experience of a product.

Balance specificity with openness

While specific tasks are focused, incorporating some degree of openness can encourage users to provide richer feedback and demonstrate their true understanding and comfort with the product. This can be particularly important for testing user interfaces and complex interactions.

Analyzing feedback from specific tasks

Be vigilant in analyzing feedback from specific tasks. Look out for signs that the user was merely completing tasks as instructed without engaging deeply with the product. Feedback should be scrutinized for indications of rote completion versus genuine interaction, which can often be discerned from verbal cues and the ease or hesitation with which tasks are completed.


The key to a successful study is to ask users to perform tasks followed up by questions that will give you the type of insights you need. Once you’ve clearly defined your test objectives, you’ll be able to decide whether to use tasks and questions that are either open-ended or specific.

Open-ended tasks and questions help you learn how your users think. They can be useful when considering branding, content, and layouts, or any of the “intangibles” of the user experience. They’re also good for observing natural user behavior.

Specific tasks and questions can help you pinpoint where users get confused or frustrated trying to do something specific on your site or app. They’re great for getting users to focus on a particular feature, tool, or portion of the product they might not otherwise interact with. If you enjoyed this article and you want to learn more about writing great test plans, check out The complete guide to user testing websites, apps, and prototypes.

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