Usability Testing: How To Gauge The Effectiveness of Your Product

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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

Photo courtesy of Memed_Nurrohmad on pixabay.com

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. 

Additional Resources

27 Tips for Usability Testing

Usability Testing Templates

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Hi Abigayle, you did a good job of writing in simple language that made your blog post enjoyable to read. Furthermore, your headings were effective and the break down of steps made the content digestible. I also liked how you explained what usability testing is and why it is important before explaining the process of how to do it. Your blog post will be helpful to navigate back to when planning and writing my usability report. I remember in professional writing we did a usability test on an instruction set we made. We utilized the speak aloud method in order to understand the process of the user. When researching usability testing I found this link: https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/usability-testing.html. I like how it mentioned that a formal lab setting is not necessary, which goes along with what you said about making sure to have a comfortable space for the participant.

  2. Hello, Abigayle! In your blog this week I really liked your usage of headings and subheadings. The organization of your post was done very nicely and organized the subjects in a very intentional way. I also appreciated the bolded words throughout the post, and how you did a step-by-step structure. You gave adequate information on usability testing, and how they can benefit websites. Your usage of imagery to portray the three main components of usability testing was a great visual to include. In connection with your post, I found this article that talks about the mistakes to avoid. While you gave a lot of good info on usability testing, I think it’s also beneficial to know what to try to avoid. The article talked about issues such as terminology to avoid, not having specific goals going in, or testing to just “confirm” ideas. This topic is important because I feel many focus on what to do, but not as much on those small things to not do. I chose to look into this article because I was interested in what common mistakes people make in usability testing. Overall, nice job on this week’s blog post.

    Article Link: https://usabilitygeek.com/critical-usability-testing-mistakes-and-how-to-avoid-them/#:~:text=Unfortunately%2C%20recruiting%20the%20wrong%20participants,data%20is%20used%20for%20development.

  3. Hi Abigayle! Usability testing is an important tool in web and interface design, and your blog post does a great job of outlining its importance and the steps involved in conducting successful usability testing. I also like how you mentioned that understanding user perspective is key to creating a user-friendly interface. As you pointed out, what seems user-friendly to the creator might not be for the users. The three main components of usability testing—the facilitator, the participant, and the tasks—are well-defined in your post, and it also emphasizes the presence of bias which I think is really important. I also found your breakdown of the five steps in the usability testing process is really informative. One thing that I found interesting is an article that explains some of the challenges of usability testing, and how you can fix them if they come up. I think it’s super important to know what problems and solutions might come up in reports like this, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about when preparing for our next assignment too!

    Link: https://www.koruux.com/blog/usability-testing-challenges/

  4. Hi Abigayle! Great post–nice use of plain language to make a potentially confusing topic more accessible to people who have little experience with usability testing. I like how you break down the three components of usability testing, and how you break down the concept of usability testing into five steps. I’ll definitely be referencing this as I develop my own usability test!

    I was particularly interested in your discussion on selecting participants; I wondered how one would go about testing a product with users who are already familiar with the product. Nielsen Norman Group has a three minute video detailing different methods for usability testing with participants who are experienced users of a product: https://www.nngroup.com/videos/when-thinking-aloud-fails/. For my own usability report, I was considering testing an internal website used by employees at my job, but couldn’t think of anyone I work with who wouldn’t have experience with the site to test. Now I could test the site with users who are already familiar with the site by following some of these methods!

  5. Hi Abigayle! I thought your post this week was really helpful! I really appreciated the way you organized the post. Starting with defining what usability testing is and then building up to the process of usability testing felt very natural, and made the entire topic easier to understand. Step 4 of the testing process stuck out to me, specifically about paying attention to the participant’s mood. If the tester makes the participant feel tense, frustrated, or uninterested, it can make the test less accurate. I feel like I would have a tendency to focus more on the test itself, that I might neglect these ideas, so I’ll be sure to keep them in mind during my usability tests. Along those lines, I found an article that gave some tips on how to conduct a usability test, including how to make participants feel comfortable. It gave the suggestions of encouraging participants to ask questions and give feedback throughout, which help make it seem less daunting for them while also giving you more insight and accurate information. Great job on your blog post!
    Link: https://aelaschool.com/en/research-en/usability-test-prepare-conduct-one/#:~:text=Therefore%2C%20do%20not%20ask%20questions,in%20front%20of%20the%20UI.

  6. Hey Abigayle, you did a great job at breaking down usability testing and why it’s important for website creators and companies to follow. I think specifically, the visual you provided for facilitator/participant/tasks helped me to really understand the main components of usability testing and their relationships with each other. Also, when you mentioned, “the facilitator must be sure not to corrupt the data by influencing the user in any way,” it made me think about my own usability testing project; it’s hard to not lead the user towards an answer, so part of my job as a facilitator is going to be making sure the pre-test questions I ask and the tasks I write allow the user to understand what I’m asking while also not leading them too much. I think by developing a thorough persona of who my users are and creating an actionable task-based scenario, the participants should be able complete my tasks without much confusion (aside from the confusion a poorly-designed website creates!).

    In addition to the strategies we’ve discussed in class and that you’ve discussed in your article, such as thinking aloud, Usability.gov has actually broken down the think aloud protocol into two separate frames: concurrent think aloud and retrospective think aloud. Concurrent think aloud is when a user verbalizes their thoughts while performing the tasks, and retrospective think aloud is when a user verbalizes their thoughts after the usability testing scenario has been completed (post-test). I think these are both important frames of think aloud to keep in mind because users often have different thoughts before, during, and after interacting with new websites.

    Link: https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/running-usability-tests.html

  7. Hi Abigayle, the importance of usability testing cannot be overstated! Your breakdown of it provides a useful guide for anyone involved in creating or evaluating a website or program. The initial emphasis on anticipating user reactions to the interface, whether it’s intuitive or frustrating, lays a crucial foundation for the entire testing process. I liked the suggestion you made to engage in light conversation before testing and the importance of recording observations, including body language, to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of user interactions. As well as the recommendation for pilot testing as a rehearsal step, allowing teams to refine procedures and address any unforeseen issues before the actual study. You broke down a lot of info in a concise way that was not too overwhelming to read. Another article I found that laid out the same topic in a similar manner was Usability 101: Introduction to Usability (nngroup.com). They identified 5 quality components that reminded me of your 5 steps as well as addressed why it is important mirroring your post.
    https://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-101-introduction-to-usability/

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