Most of us could name a website that we’ve found hard to use. Information was hard to find. You didn’t know where to click. Your experience was probably frustrating. For those of us who design websites (or user interfaces), one of the best ways to make sure site visitors do NOT have this experience is by employing a technique called usability testing.
What is usability testing?
Usability testing is a research method used to evaluate the ease with which users interact with a website. This is done by watching representative users of your site interact with it to find key information. During the test, a facilitator observes what users do, what they have trouble with, and what makes sense to them.
Usability testing is different from focus groups, surveys, and general market research because during usability testing, users are asked to complete tasks as they are observed interacting with the system. Users are not typically asked how they feel about features or design. Instead, the goal is to try to gather information about how they move through the site and how they accomplish certain tasks.
Who to test during usability testing
A typical usability test involves:
- a participant (preferably a member of your identified target audience)
- a facilitator (who will conduct the test) and
- a scribe (who will take notes during the session)
The recommended number of people with whom to test varies, but we recommended testing with approximately five users from your target audience. This is a large enough sample to identify the major problems within the design you’re testing. From our experience, by the third user, patterns develop and common feedback can be heard from the users.
We also recommend asking your users to think out loud as they complete the tasks. This allows you to understand their decision making process, and to hear what questions arise as they interact with the site. Users will often explain that they are unsure where to click or the name of a link has confused them. This feedback during the task is extremely valuable.
What to test during usability testing
During usability testing, you should test the most common tasks that users complete on your site. For example: if many users want to sign up for your newsletter, you should create a task asking them to do so.
Top tasks may include:
- purchasing an item
- signing up for a newsletter
- finding a popular report
- finding contact information
- learning more about the company or organization
Tasks should provide some context and should not use language that leads the tester to the solution. Below you will see two examples – a good one and a bad one – of how to phrase the questions. It’s important to give the participant a scenario to understand what they are looking for and get them in the right mindset to complete the task.
Good Example: You would like to talk to someone at the organization about partnering with them on an upcoming event. How would you do this?
Bad Example: Find the contact information.
When to conduct usability testing
Usability testing can be conducted at any point of your process. Doing small tests regularly, revising the design, and testing again is optimal. However, we recommend conducting usability testing during the following times :
- Before the site is redesigned. This allows you to test the old design to highlight areas that are working and areas that need improvement.
- After a new design has been created. Testing your design at this stage helps you correct areas before the site is actually built. You may choose to develop a clickable prototype of the design to mimic how a user would interact with the site, or you can can test on printed screenshots of the site and asking users to point to what they would click on.
- After the new design is implemented. Testing at this point is best if you’ve already done some testing earlier in the process, primarily because it will be harder to make major changes at this point.
Where to conduct usability testing
Testing is best done in a quiet room with a desk and a computer for the participant to sit at and space for the facilitator to sit beside him/her. The facilitator and the scribe (the person who captures notes of the session) need to be able to see the computer screen in order to follow the tester’s click-path.
Since participants can be a bit anxious when they first arrive, it is important to make the space comfortable for the participant and to reproduce as natural a work environment as possible. It’s also best to have as few people in the room as needed. Participants quickly become nervous when many people are observing them and looking over their shoulders.
Why is usability testing valuable
Usability testing helps improve your design, ensuring that users know how to find what they need. If users struggle to find what they are looking for, or get lost on your website, they will leave and look elsewhere.
Good usability saves time, provides a pleasant experience, and can impact sales on e-commerce sites.
Usability testing is insightful because no matter how hard we try to predict what users will do, we do not know what they’ll do until we test the site. Every usability test I’ve done has opened my eyes to issues and insights I would not have otherwise realized.
For more resources:
|Web sites||Usability.gov: Usability Testing Guidelines and Checklists
Jakob Nielsen’s Column on Web
|Publications||Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.
Berkeley: New Riders, 2006.
Nielsen, Jakob, and Hoa Loranger. Prioritizing Web Usability. Berkeley: New Riders, 2006.
Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Berkeley: New Riders, 1999.
Nielsen, Jakob, and Marie Tahir. Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed. Berkeley: New Riders, 2001.
Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. O’Reilly & Associates. 2002.