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As you create a website, program, etc., you may find yourself wondering how your potential users will react to the interface. Will they find it intuitive, helpful, and straightforward? Or will they find it frustrating, confusing, and unusable? Or maybe you have already implemented your product, but you want to see how it’s being received. Either way, usability testing is a great way to gain understanding of how your platform will perform/is performing with your users.
Basics of Usability Testing
What Is Usability Testing?
In usability testing, a researcher asks an individual (usually referred to as a participant) to perform a specific task or tasks using one or more user interface(s). As the participant works to complete the tasks, the researcher takes note of how the participant interacts with the interface and what comments, complaints, and questions they have.
Why Is Usability Testing Important?
The most important reason for usability testing is to identify problems with a user interface. These can be things like a user struggling to navigate to a page, difficulty finding information, or even something as simple as trying to read your chosen font and size. An interface that you’ve created may seem simple and easy to understand, but it might just appear that way to you because you were the one who created it. Inviting an outside perspective (somebody that had no hand in creating your interface) can reveal things in your interface that prevent a user from reaching their goal, and ultimately from engaging.
Usability testing can also help you understand your target audience’s preferences and behaviors. Your interface might be functional, but that doesn’t mean there are no improvements to be made. Maybe many of your users are used to the toolbar across the top of the page, but you use a hamburger menu for navigation. It’s not any less functional than the toolbar, but your users automatically look for the toolbar and have to pause to reorient and find the navigation menu. Observing this behavior in many of your participants would help you know that you should change it.
The Three Main Components of Usability Testing
All usability testing has three key pieces: the facilitator, the participant, and the tasks.
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The facilitator is responsible for directing the participant throughout testing. They give instructions and ask and answer any questions that may arise through the process. The facilitator must be sure not to corrupt the data by influencing the user in any way, such as leading them toward an answer or giving too much information about the interface. In rare cases, an app may perform this role.
The participant is someone who is considered to match the profile of an expected user of the interface. They might already use the product, or might have similar needs or background to the target user group. While they perform the given tasks, they may be asked to share their thought process out loud.
The tasks are the activities or goals that a participant may be given to complete. They may be specific or open-ended, but they reflect the general expectation of what users will want to do with an interface. The tasks may be spoken by the facilitator or listed on a sheet of paper that is given to the participant. Tasks must be easily understandable and neutral so as not to lead the participant to a certain answer.
Usability Testing Process
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Not sure where to begin? Usability testing can be broken down into five manageable steps.
Step 1: Planning
It’s important to lay out your plans and decisions early on so that you have a framework for where you’re going to go. These plans should be written down and placed somewhere that you can see and get to them easily; you will want to refer to them throughout the process.
You should begin by defining the problem you want to focus on. What is the purpose of your testing, and what areas of your interface will benefit most from it? This should be the time that you choose the types of users you want to test, and brainstorm the questions you would like to ask them. Once you’ve determined what you’re going to be testing, you also need to plan the implementation. Where are you going to perform the testing? When will you begin and how long will the testing take? Who will act as your facilitators, and how will observations and notes be recorded? These plans may change as you begin implementing them, but it’s important to go into the process with a solid foundation.
Step 2: Participants
Now it’s time to find people to take part in your testing. If you’re looking to collect information about a website that is already in use, consider asking users of the site to take part in your testing. If you’re looking for a specific subset of a population (such as working females between the ages of 20 and 30), consider hiring a professional agency to recruit for you. You can also use social media posts, or simply reach out to your own clients and ask them to participate.
You may also consider providing some sort of compensation for participating in your testing. Cash or gift cards between the totals of $30 and $50 are common.
Step 3: Creating Tasks
Now it’s time to design the questions and activities that you want your user to follow. Start by asking yourself what the most important functions of the website are. For example, if you are trying to have users test a website for your bakery, you are probably concerned with their ability to place orders.
It is important that your tasks be clear and easily understandable, and that your moderators know how to answer any questions that may arise from them. If your participant doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to do, they won’t be able to provide helpful data.
If you have multiple interfaces that you would like to try out, you should consider whether you want to use a between-subjects or within-subjects design. In a between-subjects design, users only test one interface, and perform tasks relating only to that interface. In a within-subjects design, users test all of the interfaces, so tasks may relate more to comparison between them.
Step 4: The Testing Session
As your participants come in, don’t begin immediately with the user testing. Instead, it’s recommended that you engage in light conversation in order to help your participant relax. You should also make sure that the testing area is comfortable and they understand what is expected of them. You may use this time to collect relevant demographic information, such as gender, age, or something more specific, like online shopping habits.
When you’re both ready, you can transition into the testing. As you go through the list of tasks that you have prepared, be mindful of your participant’s mood. If it seems that one task is frustrating them, try switching to something a little easier and coming back to the more difficult tasks. If your participant is excelling, perhaps try giving them a challenge to keep them engaged.
As the session goes on, it’s important that it is somehow being recorded. Ideally, someone else will take notes for you, but recording the session and taking your own notes later also tends to work well. Taking notes while trying to run testing is not ideal; it’s better if you can stay 100% focused only on running the testing. Regardless of the method, take notes not only on what the participant is saying and doing, but also on their body language, which can be just as telling. When you’re finished, take a moment to ask follow-up questions and get the participant’s final feedback before thanking them and sending them on their way.
You may also consider running a pilot test. This is a test of the procedures that takes place in advance of the actual study. Try picking a few users and running a rehearsal of your plan for the testing. Make sure all papers are printed, areas are prepared, and anything else that you plan for on the actual test day.
Pilot testing can help you and your team determine if the tasks are easily understood, and it can help you get an idea of timing. If your pilot testing goes well, you can even use it as data and add it in with what you collect on the planned testing day. Just be sure to schedule your pilot testing with enough advance time to change whatever you need to before the real thing.
Step 5: Analysis
Now that you’ve completed your testing, it’s time to make some conclusions about your data! Look for trends in what users found most difficult, or what questions they had. Don’t dwell on every single issue that every user had; instead, focus on the ones that came up frequently. Be sure to do the analysis soon after the testing so that everything remains fresh in your mind.