The Basics of Usability Testing

When learning about usability testing the Nielsen Norman Group has tons of useful articles, but the wealth of information can be overwhelming at first. However, by synthesizing a few articles from the website it becomes a lot easier to understand. The goal is to give an introductory, yet comphresensive view of usability testing.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the what, why, and how of usability testing.

What is Usability Testing?

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, usability testing is a process in which a researcher asks a group of participants to perform tasks on a website and takes notes based on how the participant interacts with those tasks.

The main goals of the testing is to identify any potential problems with the website design, uncover how to imrpove aspects of the design, and learn about the audience that the website is geared towards. The process is imperative in website design because you never exactly how your audience is going to interact with your website design.

Key Elements of Usability Testing

The three main elements of usability testing as stated by the Neilsen Norman Group are the facilitator, the participant, and the tasks. The interactions between these three elements are what make up a usability test regardless of methodology.

A usability-testing session involves a participant and a facilitator who gives tasks to the participant and observes the participant’s behavior. Usability Testing 101

As the infograph states, the facilitator’s role is to guide the participant through the test process. Their ask the participant questions, take notes on the participants behavior, and ensures the quality of the usability test. It’s important to note that the facilitator has do their job without accidentally influencing how a participant responds.

The participant needs to be someone that is in the main audience of the website being tested. The goal of a usability test is to tailor to website so that it best performs the needs of the target user. For example, a usability test on a tech savy 30 year old wouldn’t be of any use for a website that sells hearing aids to the eldery. You want your results to give you useful insights. To this end, a facilitator may even ask the participant to think-aloud while they perform tasks to understand the participant’s thought process.

Tasks are activities that the intended audience might do on the website and are typically focused on the main goals for the website. An example of a task for a website like Amazon might be to place items into the cart. These tasks are used to gauge how easy or difficult it is for the audience to perform the given activity and to record the participants behavior depending on the type of research method. It’s important to note that the questions for the task should be as unbiased as possible.

How to Choose Participants for a Usability Test

Now that we’ve gone over the key elements of usability testing, you may be wondering how to select and recruit participantns for the tests. Thankfully the Nielsen Norman Group has some advice for that as well. The process is contained within the two main components of screening and recruiting.

Screening Potential Participants

The first thing to remember is that is there is going to be some bias that is expected for usability tests. You want the test to focus on the intended audience, but you don’t want the bias to go beyond that. Professional testers, website design experts, and people with ties to the website project are some of participants you’d want to avoid.

Secondly, before a website team goes to recruit people to participate in a usability test they must determine an eligibility criteria. You can’t recruit participants that are in your intended audience if you haven’t narrowed down what that intended audience even is yet. At the same time, you don’t want to be too restrictive in your eligibility criteria. You may eliminate possible participants without realizing it.

The third and final aspect of screening participants is to use open-ended up or neutral questions to avoid giving away the topic of the usability test. You want to eliminate as much bias as possible in the selection process and some people may be more or less willing to participate if they know what the test is going to about.

Selecting a Recruitment Strategy

When choosing participants for a usability test there are several methods of recruitment that used each with their own costs and benefits.

  • Professional Recruitment Agency – These agencies are centered around finding the ideal participants for all kinds of research but their expertise comes at a hefty cost.
  • Automated Recruiting Platform – Platforms designed at finding research participants in quick period of time but has limited screening tools and have a higher chance of selecting professional testers.
  • Internal panel of existing users – Using people that already use the website guarentees the intended audience and low costs but increases the chance of biased responses.
  • Intercept Studies – Studies that are done by asking someone for their time whether at an in-person location or at an online location. Often can lead to wasted researcher time if they cannot find ideal participants.

Finding the recruitment strategy that is best for your specific website can be helpful for getting the best results.

What Research Method Should You Use?

When it comes to usability testing, there is a wide range of research methods that are at your disposal. These research methods are categorized along three different dimensions. Those dimensions are qualitative vs quantative, behavioral vs attitudinal, and context of use. The Nielsen Norman Group provides information on each dimension and where different research methods land. For the purposes of theh basics, the focus will be on the first two dimensions.

Each dimension provides a way to distinguish among studies in terms of the questions they answer and the purposes they are most suited for. The methods placed in the middle of the quantitative–qualitative axis can be used to gather both qualitative and quantitative data.
When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods

Attitudinal vs. Behavioral

Attitudinal usability tests focus on what participants say about the tasks they undergo during testing. While this information is typically less important according to the Nielsen Norman Group, it can still quite useful for a variety of reasons. This data helps website designers determine how the audience feels while using their website and can help identify important areas of the design t address.

Behavioral usability tests are all about the what participants do when tackling tasks. This helps designers see how effective the site design is and if the website works as intended. If the participant cannot easily perform the task that is at the core of the website’s purpose then how they feel about the design is no longer significant.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Qualitative usability tests are about behaviors or attitudes that observed directly and analyzed by the researchers themselves. Research methods that are qualitative are useful in determining why or how to fix a problem and allow for the researcher to adapt as the test goes on and new discoveries are found.

Quantitative usability tests are tests that units of measurement to collect data on how participants interact with a website. These research methods record how much people click on certain elements or how fast it takes them to perform a specific task. Tests that employ this method data collection tend to answer questions about how many or how much.


Hopefully after reading this you have a more complete understanding of the what, why, and how of usability testing. Knowinig the key elements, how to screen and recruit participants, and which research methods to employ are key to usability. If you can use these basics going forward then your data collection on the design of your website should improve considerably.

For further reading check out these articles below:

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Hi Jared! This information is super useful, especially as we are just getting into planning out our own method of website usability testing for our next project. I found your “What Research Method Should You Use?” section to be the most helpful in furthering my understanding about this topic. Before reading this, I had heard of qualitative vs quantitive research methods, but not attitudinal vs. behavioral. I also liked your section on how to choose the right testing subject because it shows just how many options you have to find someone who fits in your target audience. Here is an additional article that I think works well with your topic: You mentioned bias in your blog, so this resource gives additional tips for how to avoid that in your research so you can collect the most accurate data.

  2. I found your blog post very valuable for a few reasons: first, because it has a lot to do with our upcoming usability project; second, because it is directly related to (website redesign) tasks I am completing for my internship; and third, because usability testing is used very frequently in advertising (my major).

    One phrase I noticed in your post that stood out to me (because I hadn’t heard it before) was decontextualized. I looked into it further and found this website very helpful in increasing my understanding of the concept:

    While reading through that source, I came across the concept of heuristic evaluations, which is basically a way to break down the larger concept of “usability” into individually scoreable segments. For example, if you use the same usability tests on two different sites, you can use heuristic evaluation to compare the usability “scores”. This interested me because decontextualized data collection is used a lot in advertising. It can help eliminate or reduce bias among those reviewing the usability of, for example, a well-known brand or organization’s website.

  3. Hi Jared, I enjoyed your blog post. Learning about usability testing is very relevant, especially considering our upcoming project. Before reading, I knew what usability testing was and its purpose, but this post taught me a lot about the details of how to select participants, and the different types of testing. It’s a great guide to follow along to select what’s right for your website. This article, was informational and relevant to your topic. I like that it gave examples of what usability testing is not, and also touched on remote vs. in person testing, and user vs. usability testing. The section of your blog that stood out to me was how to choose participants because it dives deep into who you should and should not look for for your usability test.

  4. This blog is great Jared. Most importantly, this blog will be helpful when preparing for our upcoming usability test. The section that stood out to me the most was, “What Research Method Should You Use”. This section will be helpful when I plan my usability tests in the future. I liked the part about attitudinal and behavioral testing. This section broke down the difference between the two well. I think it is important to get a balance between these two types of tests because it is important to know what the audience thinks and what they are able to achieve. This is a well-rounded approach to learning about a website through different questions while testing. In addition, I think your image added to my understanding of the two research methods. Andrea Cimpan wrote a blog ( ) that discussed attitudinal and behavioral testing. This blog explained exactly why each type of testing is important and gave some examples of each.

  5. Hi Jared! This is a fantastic blog post you’ve made. I’ve learned a lot of new and interesting information about Usability Testing and how it works. The part I find particularly interesting is how you address potential bias. Bias is, after all, avoidable for a majority of people. Especially those who are wanting a particular site in question. You manage to explain it all clearly and easily enough for anyone to understand. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this post.

  6. Hey Jared! Great post this week! I found this blog extremely helpful especially as we all begin our Website Usability Testing project. I think the format you wrote this in is extremely clear and easy to follow with every subject being not only it’s own paragraph, but it’s own section with a subheading.
    I really like your utilization of infographics and I think the ones you chose work really well for your subject. One thing I noticed however, is that you refer to the “Key Elements of Usability Testing” and the infographic you use refers to the “Core Elements of Usability Testing.” I think keeping these two phrases consistent could take one more step towards making a great post an excellent one. Overall I really enjoyed reading your post and I think you did a great job!

  7. I thought this post was very relevant and helpful for what we are currently studying in class. The infographics and usage of bullet points as a list kept things organized. The infographics also provided a way for visual learners to better understand the points that were being made. Overall, this is a really easy to read and convenient article. this article by the Interaction Design Foundation focuses on the same topic, and may be helpful in providing more information on the subject.

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