“Testing is an infinite process of comparing the invisible to the ambiguous in order to avoid the unthinkable happening to the anonymous.”
James Bach, Creator of Rapid Software Testing methodology

Why should I care?

Usability testing shouldn’t just be a suggestion thrown around that your company or team might try – it’s imperative. There’s a reason why the companies behind successful products do it: usability testing is the right way to launch better and faster products, with the least amount of wasted resources.

Many teams think using analytics is enough. However, while they’re useful to have, used alone, they don’t have fully actionable points to move forward with. Once you see the human experience behind the data, you can figure out exactly where and how to spend your resources.

As a business, you want people to use your product instead of any competitor’s out there, and in order to achieve that, you need intelligence. You want to collect as much relevant knowledge as you can get to make the product that people want and love.

The fact of the matter is that people buy things because they want to achieve something. There’s always a goal; a reason behind the product. No one I know has bought a sofa simply just to own it. They buy one to sit on it and relax. If your product helps people to achieve a goal, they will love it, they will continue to use it, and they will recommend it to others. So, to have people love your product, you need to know how they use it. That’s where user testing comes in.

User testing helps you understand how people use your product and for what purpose.
Do they use it for the intended purpose you designed it for? Do they achieve what you wanted and if they do reach their ultimate goal, are they happy or frustrated?

If you find the answers to these questions, it will help you to create a better and more relevant product for your customers.

I’m sold! So, when should user testing take place?

Ideally, usability testing should be done with prototypes before your product launches and then many, many times after. Simply put, you should always be testing. No website or application is perfect (even Google – shock, horror!), but every one of them should constantly be evolving and looking to better itself.

Sketched ideas of iOS/mobile prototypes Image by Canned Tuna

How do I start?

Like all kinds of research, you need to go into usability testing with a plan. By following a few simple guidelines, you’ll know what to expect, what to look for, and what to take away from your usability testing.

  1. Create a plan:
    Identify what aspects of your product you want to evaluate and create tasks associated with these. First and foremost, you should include a scenario or instruction to give to your test users (e.g. “It’s your mother’s birthday next Wednesday. Please purchase her a bouquet of roses, as this is her favourite flower.”) For this test, you’ll need to identify a point in the process – a page or action – where the task can be claimed a success. It’s important to note the desired path you expect users to take to achieve this goal.

  2. Create a detailed recruitment profile and gather your users:
    This is one of the most important things to get right. They need to be representative of your target audience; otherwise, you won’t be able to trust your findings.

  3. Know your product and know it well:
    Whether it’s an app, website or anything in between, you must become familiar with it yourself, as this will help the sessions flow a lot more smoothly. Don’t forget to also freeze development while user testing takes place, as a constantly changing website will do you no favours.

  4. Arrange the facilities:
    Using your office or hiring a usability lab are both completely valid. As long as you’re all set up, and the sessions aren’t likely to be disturbed, you can use the most appropriate location available to you.

  5. Practice makes perfect:
    Run a fake test (or three!) with other members of the team to become acquainted with the process and formalities.

But, there are so many methods out there…which one should I choose?

There are a few ways of conducting usability tests, each one dependant on how complete your product is: whether you’re just generating ideas, implementing the design, selecting features, or even post launch. All of them can help you to understand how people use your product.

In-depth interviews are conducted one-on-one by a moderator. It’s done on the basis of a prepared scenario whereby the moderator includes a detailed set of open-ended questions that they’re searching for the answer to. It’s much more relevant in the early concept phase of creating a website, as it helps to gather the needs of intended customers – what are their goals, how do they conduct tasks and how are your competitors aiding or hampering them?

Focus groups, like one-on-one interviews, uncover the attitudes, emotions and motivations behind your users. The use of projection methods allows you to understand attitudes which were not directly revealed by users.

Paper prototyping is a technique that consists of creating hand drawings of user interfaces to enable them to be rapidly designed, simulated and tested. It’s a simple technique, but has been used effectively since the 1980’s and is still being used to great success today. It aims to explore and validate ideas to show intention behind a feature or the overall design concept. It can save you time and money before putting investment into the development phase.

People in a group creating an MVP prototype with post-it notes Image by Eugene Kim

Card sorting is a method which is incredibly helpful at the stage of creating the application, as well as later on, while optimising the information architecture. In a card sorting session, participants organise topics into categories. The main aim is to establish how users perceive the hierarchy of elements. Card sorting can help you understand your users’ expectations and understanding of your topics.

Moderated in-person usability testing is a fundamental technique used to obtain feedback from live users interacting with a digital product prototype or a fully implemented application. For this, you will need something tangible for users to interact with. Here, you can uncover sticking points in a user’s journey and any issues with the content.

Remote usability testing means you don’t even need to be in the same country as your participants. Again, you should have something tangible to test, as it uses online methods to observe and analyse user behaviour while users complete tasks on the website. The main advantage of this method is that users work in their natural environment – at home or work. It is also time and cost-effective. We recently saw a great talk on this topic at UX Bristol, so be sure to have a read for some useful tidbits.

I have data – now what?

At the end of your testing, you should have several types of data, depending on the metrics identified in your plan. Now, you have to analyse this data by reading and re-reading notes, and look for any kinds of patterns or problems that occurred across your participants.

When reviewing the data, consider the severity of any problems experienced through the testing. It’s deemed critical if users can’t complete scenarios given to them in the task, whereas minor annoyances experienced by users can be revisited later if they still managed to complete the scenario.

For a usability test to have any real value, you must use all the knowledge you learned to improve your website or application. Of course, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to implement every recommendation. Developing any product involves prioritisation and balancing schedule, budget and expectations. It’s important to focus on changes that users need instead of what they want.

Remember, it costs a lot more to support users of a poorly-designed site than it does to fix the site while it is still being developed and yet to launch.

A cat posed as if using a laptop Image by Cassandra Leigh Gotto

Conclusion

Usability testing is an essential component of design and feature selection. It’s something worth carrying out if you hope to achieve success with your product and can help set your website or application apart from your competitors. You also don’t necessarily need to invest a large amount of money to undertake it. If you feel you only need to test on a smaller scale, friends and relatives can be very helpful (and cheap!).

Usability testing can be done in so many different ways, so it’s important to determine which way is right for you and fits your purpose before starting. Even if you have a finished product, you should test some more! Your product will thrive on feedback, so don’t leave it on the shelf, growing stale as the days go by.

Main image by Kristina Alexanderson