How to get the most out of your usability testing

On a whiteboard, draw a column for each participant so you can put up sticky notes under their names and against each page.

Usability testing is crucial if we want to keep meeting our customers’ needs. We ask users to complete a series of tasks, typically while they are being observed by the team to see where they encounter problems and experience confusion. We’ll then use these findings to inform product design decisions so we keep meeting the growing, changing needs of our customers.

Recruitment and your objectives

  • I always find it best to work with specialist recruiters to source participants typical of your target audience. If you have a research team, work with them to identify the best criteria for your user recruitment. Write a short guide to capture all the specifics such as age, gender, technical expertise and behavioural requirements so you don’t miss anything important, and you can pass this onto them in one document. Also decide if you wish to target new customers or existing ones for this particular test.
  • While the recruiters do what they do best, write a discussion guide that you’ll follow throughout each test. This should clearly list the objectives of your study – what you want to learn more about and the answers you really need to finalise your design. For example, did they find the call-to-action clear enough? Were they able to discover a particular feature easily? Then, note down what your task scenarios should be – this serves as a little script for you to follow, although from experience you’ll find you won’t need to read it line by line, the conversation and tasks will end up flowing quite naturally.

I recommend hiring the lab owned by UX agency, Webcredible, if you are based in or around London

Here are my top tips for running your sessions effectively on the day:

    1. Keep the sessions to a maximum of 45 minutes per participant. I’ve found any longer than that and their concentration wanes a little and you’ll get less and less from them. It’ll also give you a short break of 15 minutes to discuss what you saw before the next one. Give all the tech in the room a quick test before the first participant arrives to put your mind at ease. There will be nothing worse than getting in a panic when you realise the mouse batteries ran out last night or something similiar.
    2. Relax and reassure participants as soon as they arrive so they feel comfortable in their surroundings. Remember it may be the first time they have done anything like this before and some participants may be quieter or more apprehensive when they arrive than others. I always like to say “we are testing the prototype and not you” or “you can’t do anything wrong” and this always seems to put them more at ease from the beginning.
    3. As designers, we want to ensure we get completely honest feedback from them otherwise we won’t get a true reflection of their thoughts, so explain that you’ve had absolutely no involvement in the design of the prototype or project (even if you have!). That way, they won’t feel like they need to hold anything back and it encourages honesty and no awkwardness. Go on to say that you have been asked to evaluate this website or app – it’s a work in progress – and we just want to find out more about whether it makes sense to you and whether everything is useful. Finally, if you are recording the screen and the audio, ask for their permission to do so but reassure them it will only be for referring back to as part of the write-up (if we need to) and that it’ll kept on file only for a limited time.
    4. Find out a little bit more about the participants. Ask them some questions about themselves such as what they do for a living, what their interests are or link it back to the theme of the topic they may have already been told the user testing is about. The last session I ran was about charitable giving so I asked them what their favourite cause was, if they had ever heard of the company in the designs and if they could tell me the last time they donated online. These details can really help you with your personas of typical customers.
    5. During the sessions, resist the urge to step in and point them in the right direction (warning: this may be difficult but you’ll get more honest feedback). Have patience, don’t rush the task and let them explore the page in their own time or try rephrasing the question if they aren’t quite understanding the task you set them, but be careful not to lead them too much to prevent bias.
    6. If your prototype has a logged-in profile or indeed any personalisation, why not in-between sessions (if you have time), update it to show the actual participant’s name. Extra attention to detail could be nice here to make it feel like a live site.
    7. Take lots of notes (on post-its and a Google Sheet). It’s pretty impossible to ask the questions, keep an eye on the screen AND take notes so have a colleague or two help you with the note taking and observing. That way there’ll be less chance you’ll miss anything vital. On your Google Sheet, make sure you time-stamp your comments so you can refer back on the video to replay it if you’re creating a highlights reel later to show stakeholders. Try and capture everything that’s said that stands out –  it could be general comments, issues they encountered or actual quotes from your participants that stand out (have a different coloured post-it note for each type if you’re super organised). Afterwards, try to group common findings together as it’ll help you with writing up your final report.
Neil Berry

Experienced UX/UI designer with a passion for all things design. Currently Senior UX Designer at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), one of the UK’s largest charities.

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