Why, How, and When to Utilize Usability Testing

Usability Testing: Pencil

If you work in the digital design industry, you’ve probably heard about or have utilized a usability test. Just in case you haven’t, a usability test is a technique used in user-centered interaction design to evaluate a product by testing it on users. This can be seen as an irreplaceable usability practice, since it gives direct input on how real users use a website.  If you’d like to see one in action, take a look at this video.

It can be difficult to explain why usability tests are necessary to your clients. If you know what you’re talking about, they can be used to get a leg up on your competitors who aren’t doing a great job of explaining why or how to implement usability tests and what the outcomes of those tests are.

Before we take you into the process we use, let’s start with why it’s important to implement usability testing for each of your web design projects.

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Why usability testing?

You can’t fix something if you don’t know that it’s broken. Companies and agencies that foster a culture of testing can identify what is broken or not working at its best, and develop fixes centered around those results. Usability testing is helpful because it focuses on actual behavioral patterns and design solutions as opposed to solely relying on the assumptions and prescribed solutions by clients or designers.

So, why exactly is usability testing important?

  • Designers make a lot of assumptions about what is: ‘useful, functional, learnable, and delightful’ for their users.
  • It is impossible to understand the wants, needs, pains, and pleasures of your users while designing from within a vacuum.
  • Design and development is expensive. Usability testing assures that time spent in design and development is not time wasted.

If you're building products for international markets, be sure to check out how pseudo-localization can help you make more usable products.

How to run a usability test

Users are smart, we should be listening to them! They often know what they want and will surprise designers with their expectations. A valuable usability test will contain non-leading objective tasks enabling the facilitator to identify patterns of the user’s pleasure and pain-points.

If you’ve never created a usability test before, we recommend thoroughly reading the UserTesting.com resources section. Within this content-rich area of their site, you can look into how and why to actually perform a usability test. We recommend performing four to five tests on subjects, and doing so based upon your existing Google Analytics.

For instance, if your analytics says that 50% of your traffic is desktop and 50% is mobile, you should be running an even amount of tests on desktop and mobile. In addition, pay attention to analytics that stick out like sore thumbs – for instance, is your bounce rate high? If so, one of the things you should be testing for is why people are leaving quickly and fix those issues as quickly as possible.

Here’s a simple framework for developing a usability test that works:

  • 1. Formulate a hypothesis

  • Create a hypothesis that defines what is working well, what isn’t, and where improvements can be made. Rely on web metrics from Google Analytics to spot trends.  If you’re using any other analytics platforms as well, such as heat tracking analytics or A/B testing, look at those results to see where people are getting stuck.

  • 2. Identify goals for the user test

  • Try to pinpoint objectives you want your user test to accomplish, i.e. to identify where people get stuck in the “Add to Cart” process.  This is important as you should have something to measure and analyze.  A first test may be more general for core website tasks, and as you continue to run user tests periodically, you can become more and more granular with it.

  • 3. Develop a user test script

  • Next you will want to develop your user test script with specific actionable tasks for the user to complete. Typically, a task will center around the testing of a primary feature. The order of tasks, and tasks themselves should be identical test-to-test in order to maintain consistency.

    A script should include a short background about the site, questions about the tester, and then 5-10 specific tasks to complete on the website. You can view an example script and best practices here.

    4. Ask for a verbal reaction in your test

    Qualitative results can provide a different perspective or insight into your test. After observing a user completing a task, it’s helpful to ask for a verbal reaction:

    • “Is this what you expected to see?”
    • “If this wasn’t a test, would you have completed this task?”
    • “Would you recommend this site/app to a friend? Why, why not?”

    Asking non-leading questions should help engage the user and inspire creative thinking for both them and the tester. Upon completing a user test, we like asking users, “If you had a magic wand, what is something that you would change about this site/app?”

    5. Compile your results and create a short recap

    Try to use your recap to provide as much information as possible about what you learned from the test and its results. What are the main points gained from the user tests? What are the action items and main points to consider from the user tests?  When you run your next user tests, what would you like to see fixed?

    That’s the framework we use for our user tests in a nutshell. You can view an example of a completed ecommerce website user test here.

    Our primary tools to conduct a usability test are UserTesting.com (paid per test), or simply finding people at a coffee shop or open work environment. UserTesting.com will give more accurate results in a faster time frame, but if budget is tight, a coffee shop or open work environment can work well. UserTesting.com’s software allows you to pick characteristics of the users as well, which is very valuable – this includes age, sex, location, income, and more.

    Another option is to ask current customers and give them a reward for participating. If there is a brick and mortar location accessible, go there and get active customers involved in the process. If not, try sending out an email blast to conduct user tests. Both will work very well if done correctly.

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    When should I implement usability testing?

    If possible, usability testing can and should be conducted on the current iteration of a product before beginning any new design work, after you’ve begun the strategy work around a brand new site or app. This will quickly identify areas for opportunity, and reduce the amount of assumptions your design team will make with regard to what the user wants. Additionally, after the usability tests analysis, the team should have the ability to pinpoint the steps needed  to achieve the project goals with as little disruption as possible.

    Don’t assume that a system is completely broken when beginning a project. Most likely designers, developers, researchers, content strategists, etc. have already spent a lot of time building what you see before you. Rather than assuming that the efforts of previous teams were completely misguided, identify particular areas where design, testing, and validation can be conducted in order to enhance and correct the product. Ultimately, this will assist in limiting the scope of work.

    Once you’ve gotten results from an initial usability test, it’s then important to use those results throughout your design phase and keep re-testing users. We typically design at the wireframe level first, followed by the high-fidelity final designs. At both of those stages, we create clickable prototypes using InVision, which allow us to perform user tests and continue to optimize the design and usability of the site.

    Given the amount of usability testing that occurs in our process, we always launch our sites with the knowledge that the new site will significantly outperform the old one. The data backs it up. Once a new site is launched, we continue to perform periodic user tests in order to improve the site consistently. Remember, any website or app is a living, breathing, digital animal – it must be well taken care of to grow into a fully mature platform, and usability tests are a significant tool to get there.

    Any more questions about usability testing? Let us know in the comments below.

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