How usability testing works

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What is usability testing?

If you've ever spoken to your users about how they interact with your product, chances are you've probably conducted some type of usability testing. Usability testing is a form of user research where test participants use your product to complete tasks. It examines your product's functionality and validates the intuitiveness of your user interface and design. Your product must operate on a high level of functionality because if users cannot complete tasks without difficulty or frustration, they may switch gears and work with a competitor. These areas of confusion pinpoint where your product has room for improvement. 

When should you do usability testing?

The short answer is early and often. Usability testing is an iterative process from the prototyping phase to the post-launch. At the conceptual stage, before making any design decisions, test your low-effort prototypes, as it'll reveal user feedback and pain points that you can work to resolve. However, it doesn't stop there. Test at every phase of the product development cycle to learn user behavior and understand what works well, what needs improvement, and how you can fix it. Continuously testing keeps your customer at the forefront and enables you to design products with vast human insight. 

How to run a usability test

Usability testing can be done remotely or in person, in either a moderated or unmoderated format. Although it's conducted differently, the usability testing framework will usually be the same. Determine your research goals, resources—how much time and money you're willing to spend—and your target audience to decide what usability testing method suits your needs. Here are some steps to follow to run a usability test:

  1. Plan the test

Determine the nature of your study by defining the purpose of your test. What areas of your product do you want to focus on? If you have any pressing questions about how users interact with an aspect of your product, this is the time to gather feedback. Gather questions to ask test participants. However, don’t become too focused on asking specific questions during usability testing, so you can ask questions organically. 

Find a place to conduct the study. You can run the study in an office, a research lab, or remotely. If you decide to do the study in person, the room must have limited to no distractions or interruptions so participants can stay focused while completing tasks. 

  1. Find participants

Most usability experts recommend testing up to five participants that closely match your target customer. Include incentives—gift cards, cash payments, or other monetary payments—to entice people to participate in your study. To find participants, use a recruitment agency, pop-ups on your website, or social media. 

  • Recruitment agencies tend to charge more, but they reduce your workload by finding and selecting desirable candidates. 
  • Add pop-ups to your website for website visitors to view. If they already use your products or services, chances are they'll be interested in providing in-depth feedback to help improve your products further.
  • Suppose you have a large following and tons of social media engagement, post on social media to find potential participants for your study. Add relevant hashtags to find more participants that resonate with your target user base.
  1. Plan the tasks for your study

Ask participants to complete tasks they'll regularly encounter while navigating your website. For example, if you own an e-commerce business, one of your tasks may look like this. "You're buying a dress for your daughter's birthday party, but you're on a budget, and she loves the color purple. Try to find a purple dress that's less than $100." A task like this allows you to test the most important functions of your site—if it's an e-commerce site, purchasing and finding products is essential. This task also shows if participants can find certain filters easily—like a filter to change the color of the dresses or the pricing. 

  1. Conduct the study

During the study, allow participants to complete tasks without your assistance or guidance. Try to see how long it takes users to navigate your site and complete tasks. 

Ask participants to think out loud to observe their thoughts while they use your product. This way, you'll know their thoughts and feelings as they interact with your product, deepening your human insight and feedback. 

After the completion of every task, ask participants for feedback. Garner whether they find your product functional, if they're able to complete tasks successfully, and if they enjoyed interacting with your product. 

  1. Analyze test results

After conducting the study and gathering your data, analyze the results. Aim to do this soon after the completion of your study, so the results are still fresh and relevant in your mind. If multiple participants experienced repeated issues during the study, examine the problem further to make any adjustments or improvements. When you analyze the results, you can identify any problematic patterns with your product's usability and implement your findings to improve the overall user experience of your product.

 

Want to learn more?

Grab a copy of User Tested: How the World's Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences, co-authored by UserTesting’s CIO Janelle Estes and CEO Andy MacMillan.

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Cover of User Tested Book