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Conducting Usability Tests: Best Practices and Tips

Usability testing is a critical part of the design process that evaluates how easy and intuitive a product is to use. 

It provides insights into how real users interact with a product, revealing pain points and opportunities for improvement. Conducting effective usability tests is crucial for creating products and experiences that truly resonate with users.

This article will provide best practices and tips for planning and conducting usability tests. 

We’ll cover important considerations like determining test goals, recruiting representative users, choosing a moderated vs unmoderated approach, writing effective test scripts, facilitating sessions smoothly, gathering useful data, and synthesizing findings into impactful recommendations. 

Whether you’re new to usability testing or looking to improve your current process, this guide will equip you with strategies and knowledge to run tests that yield meaningful insights and drive product success. 

By implementing the recommendations in this article, you’ll be able to conduct usability tests that maximize value and lead to improved user experiences.

What is Usability Testing?

Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product by testing it on real users. The goal is to identify usability issues, collect qualitative and quantitative data, and determine how easy and satisfying a product is to use by having representative users complete predetermined tasks.

In a usability test, participants are asked to complete tasks typical of the product’s intended use while observers watch, listen, and take notes. 

The participants are encouraged to think aloud so observers can gain insights into their thought processes. Data such as task success rates, completion times, and subjective satisfaction are collected.

The key benefit of usability testing is identifying issues real users encounter so they can be improved, resulting in products that are more efficient, effective, learnable, and satisfying. Usability testing provides insights that other evaluation methods cannot.

Observing real people work through tasks reveals pain points due to interface design, terminology, information architecture, and more that negatively impact user experience. 

Usability testing is essential for eliminating frustration and creating designs that feel intuitive. Conducting tests at multiple stages allows issues to be fixed early before product launch when changes are cheaper. Overall, usability testing leads to products tailored to user needs, driving adoption, engagement, and success.

Preparing for Usability Testing

1. Understanding Your Product

Having a deep understanding of your product is crucial when preparing for a usability test. 

Start by spending time thoroughly reviewing the product yourself while considering the user’s perspective. Document all of the major features, flows, terminology, and UI elements. 

Make a list of the key tasks and workflows you want to evaluate to ensure users can achieve critical goals with the product successfully. Prioritize testing the most important functions versus secondary features that are just nice to have. 

Define the major questions you want to answer through usability testing such as: Is the terminology we use clear or confusing? Are key workflows logical or counterintuitive? 

Is the interface intuitive enough to use without instructions? Focus the test on validating that your primary user goals are achievable and identifying major pain points. 

Also, develop a quantitative discussion guide to gain additional qualitative insights into user perceptions and satisfaction beyond just task success rates. 

With a focused understanding of your product and the aspects you want to test, you can develop targeted and realistic user tasks and scenarios.

2. User Representation

Recruiting participants that accurately represent real users is critical for insightful usability testing. 

For consumer products, consider factors like demographics, expertise level, familiarity with similar products, and previous experience specifically using your product or competitors. 

If possible, recruit actual user personas that have been defined through market research to capture insights from important consumer segments. 

For enterprise products meant for internal use, recruit actual employees that would use the software in their jobs. Offer adequate incentives for participation without coercion. 

For unmoderated tests, carefully screen applicants with targeted qualifying questions to confirm they match your target users. 

For moderated in-person tests, aim to recruit approximately 6-12 participants which will identify a majority of major usability issues while remaining a feasible number given budget and timeline constraints.

3. How to Develop Tasks

The tasks you design have a major impact on the insights gained from usability testing. Carefully craft tasks that are based on the most important real-world user goals and reflect critical product workflows. 

Avoid unrealistic hypothetical situations or tasks users would never do. Make sure to use the actual product UI for all tasks rather than prototypes. 

Write tasks that are as specific as possible such as “make a payment on your credit card bill using the app” versus vague directions like “interact with the page”. 

Develop a logical flow moving from simple to more complex tasks, building on the knowledge gained from prior tasks. Balance evaluating both critical usage and casual usage. 

Pilot test the task language with target users and revise as needed. Aim for 5-15 task scenarios that will take an average of 5-10 minutes each to complete. 

Well-designed tasks will yield actionable insights vs open-ended directives.

Setting Up the Test Environment

Lab Environment

Conducting usability tests in a controlled lab environment allows for more control over the test conditions and consistency between sessions. 

Dedicated usability labs provide a specialized room setup with two-way mirrors and separate observation areas so the research team can unobtrusively watch each user session. 

The controlled lab environment is free from outside distractions that could influence the testing. Since testing is done onsite, users are brought to the lab location and can be provided with any equipment, products, or materials needed for the test scenarios. 

The lab setting also allows for easy recording of test sessions through video and audio capture. All elements of the test can be precisely managed, measured, calibrated and replicated. However, the lab environment lacks the realism of a natural setting.

Natural Environment

Conducting usability testing in a natural environment means evaluating the product in the same context where users would interact with it in the real world. 

For consumer products, this could involve testing in a person’s home. For enterprise products, it means observing use in the actual workplace. Natural environment testing provides valuable insights about real-world environmental factors that may impact use of the product that would not be uncovered in a lab. 

Testing in natural environments also captures more realistic user behaviors versus an artificial lab setting. 

However, conducting tests in uncontrolled natural environments makes it harder to consistently replicate scenarios and technical issues can arise when recording and collecting data outside of a dedicated lab.

Deciding Between Lab vs. Natural

In the early stages of design when feedback on low-fidelity prototypes is needed, lab testing allows for quick iteration by controlling all the variables. 

As products become more refined and approach launch, natural environment testing becomes critical for revealing insights about real-world use. The decision depends on available resources, the stage of product design and development, as well as the types of insights needed. 

Often the best approach is to conduct testing in a lab first to uncover core usability issues, then complement those findings with natural environment tests later. This combination provides the most comprehensive feedback on the user experience.

Conducting the Usability Test

The Moderator’s Role

The moderator is the facilitator during a usability test and thus plays an extremely important role in conducting an effective test that yields meaningful insights. 

Key moderator responsibilities include;

  •  Greeting users and making them feel comfortable, 
  • Providing clear instructions and context before tasks, 
  • Objectively observing how users complete tasks without intervening or influencing their behaviors, 
  • Taking detailed notes on user actions, emotions, comments and difficulties,
  • Appropriately probing for more information when users encounter issues,
  • Answering occasional user questions without leading them, and 
  • Debriefing with users after tasks to uncover their subjective perceptions of their experience. 

The qualities of a skilled moderator include;

  • Ability to build rapport with users, 
  • Deep knowledge of the test protocol, 
  • Objectivity and avoidance of bias, 
  • Active listening and communication skills, 
  • Keen observational skills, and ability to probe for revealing feedback while keeping users engaged. 

The results of a test are highly dependent on the moderator’s skills.

Conducting the Test

To conduct a productive usability test that provides impactful insights, follow this process:

Brief Participants: 

Upon welcoming participants, explain that the goal of the test is to improve the product, not to test them. 

Establish open communication and encourage them to share honest reactions to identify issues to enhance the user experience. Provide background on thinking aloud during the test. 

Review any equipment and the overall structure of test tasks and scenarios. Ensure they understand what you are asking them to do and are ready to begin.

Monitor the Test: 

During each task scenario, closely observe how participants interact with the product without intervening or offering guidance so all behaviors are natural. 

Take detailed notes on what tasks they complete successfully versus where they struggle or fail. Note emotional reactions, comments, questions, suggestions, times to complete tasks, clicks, and anything that indicates confusion or hesitation. 

For remote tests, pay close attention to body language and facial expressions for additional insights. 

Redirect participants if they get severely off track to properly complete key tasks. After tasks, probe for specific feedback on issues where they struggled.

Conclude the Test: 

After all formal tasks are complete, debrief participants on their overall experience using the product. 

Ask open-ended questions to uncover additional perceptions of what they liked, found confusing, or would change. Thank users, provide any compensation, and close out the session. 

For remote sessions, schedule follow-up calls if needed to further build rapport and gain more qualitative insights.

Gathering subjective feedback from participants at the end provides necessary context for interpreting the empirical test data and video observations. Moderating in an unbiased, user-focused manner yields insightful findings that can directly enhance the usability of the product.

Common Mistakes Made During Usability Tests

Not recruiting representative users – 

It is critical to test with participants that match your target audience demographics, backgrounds, expertise levels, and familiarity with your product category. 

Avoid the mistake of only recruiting coworkers or friends to participate, as they do not exhibit real user behaviors and attitudes. 

Carefully screen potential participant applicants through targeted qualifying questions to confirm they closely match your intended users and personas. Recruit from your actual user pools when possible.

Testing with too few users – 

A common mistake is planning a usability study with only 1-2 participants. 

While some issues may surface with that limited sample, testing with so few people simply does not provide enough data points to identify major usability patterns and draw truly meaningful conclusions. 

For most standard products, testing with a bare minimum of 6-12 participants is recommended to uncover a majority of large issues impacting users.

Not setting clear goals – 

Going into a test without clear direction and focus on specific insights needed is a recipe for inefficient results. 

Take the time to define the key questions you want the usability test to answer so you can focus scenarios and tasks on the highest priority areas. Don’t conduct overly broad testing just to gather random observations and feedback without purpose.

Asking leading questions – 

Even unintentionally, it is easy to ask questions that influence user behaviors and direct feedback in a certain way during a usability test. 

Avoid this by maintaining neutrality at all times. Probe objectively after tasks to uncover more details on issues encountered, rather than probing to confirm assumptions.

Intervening too much – 

Providing excessive guidance and instructions during test tasks alters natural user behaviours. 

Avoid this mistake by only assisting participants if they get severely stuck or off-track on a task. Otherwise remain silently observant to capture authentic interactions.

Poor task design – 

For usable results, test tasks must accurately reflect critical real-world user goals and workflows. 

Avoid hypothetical situations or tasks users would never complete. Write scenarios to be as specific as possible. Broad, generic tasks yield no meaningful insights.

Disregarding behavior observations – 

Live user reactions and emotions provide a rich supplement to hard performance data. 

Avoid the mistake of only reviewing video recordings. Take detailed real-time notes on reactions, emotions, body language, points of confusion, errors, comments etc.

Interpreting the Results

Analyzing Data

To interpret usability test results effectively, start by carefully reviewing all qualitative subjective feedback and observations from users, including open-ended comments, responses to interview questions, notes on reactions and emotions, and participant suggestions. 

This provides crucial context. Next, thoroughly analyze the quantitative performance data collected, including task success rates, task times, number of clicks to complete tasks, sentiment ratings, and any other measurable data points. 

Look for major trends and patterns that emerged, making note of usability issues that impacted a significant portion of users. 

Watch for situations where problems increased along with task complexity. Calculate key averages and ranges for metrics like task time. 

Run basic statistical tests to check if performance differences between user groups or tasks are statistically significant. Leverage data analysis tools and eye tracking insights if available. 

The goal is to thoroughly understand key data points and trends indicating usability issues.

Identifying Patterns

With a solid understanding of the data, the next step is identifying meaningful patterns of usability issues. Look for correlations and relationships between the subjective feedback and the quantitative data. 

Flag usability problems that consistently appeared and impacted a large number of test participants. Make note of emotional reactions such as visible frustration, confusion, or hesitation that signal difficulty with certain tasks or interfaces. 

Identify points within the product experience where users struggled, required significant assistance, or were unable to complete tasks entirely. 

Notice when multiple users express similar suggestions for improvement to a particular workflow or feature. Document these key patterns that point to recurring usability issues affecting the user experience.

Communicating Findings

To derive value from a usability study, results must be clearly communicated to stakeholders. 

Summarize key test details and the most impactful insights in an executive summary. 

Highlight major themes and patterns that emerged from testing. Based on these key takeaways, provide practical prioritized recommendations on how to address the usability issues identified. 

Visualize key data points through charts and graphs to make trends clear at a glance. Use short video clips to illustrate issues observed during testing. 

Share insights both aggregated across all test participants and broken down by user segments and personas. 

To protect privacy, keep specific user data anonymous. Keep the stakeholder audience and their goals in mind, customizing reporting accordingly. 

Focus on synthesizing findings into realistic and actionable recommendations that will tangibly improve product usability when implemented. Follow up with additional detailed results for stakeholders to dig deeper.

Best Practices and Tips for Usability Testing

Recruiting Users

  • Leverage existing customer lists, panel providers, and respondent databases to source qualified participants
  • Screen applicants with qualifying questions to confirm target audience match
  • Over-recruit by 20%+ for unmoderated tests to account for no-shows
  • Provide reasonable incentives tied to completion, not just sign-ups
  • Recruit 6-12 users for in-person moderated tests

Creating Realistic Scenarios

  • Observe real customer usage to understand common goals and pain points
  • Design tasks based on key real-world workflows and questions
  • Vary task complexity to cover both critical and casual use cases
  • Pilot test flows before launch and refine as needed

Moderating Tests

  • Build rapport to make users comfortable sharing honest reactions
  • Remain neutral in tone, language, and body language
  • Probe areas of difficulty with open-ended questions, not assumptions
  • Only assist struggling users if required to complete critical tasks

Interpreting and Presenting Results

  • Supplement performance data with qualitative insights
  • Visualize key data trends through simple charts and graphs
  • Highlight key themes and actionable recommendations from findings
  • Tailor reporting depth and style for different audiences
  • Follow up to answer additional questions and provide support

Frequently Asked Questions On Conducting Usability Tests

1. Question: What is usability testing and why is it important?

Answer: Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product by testing it on representative users. Users are asked to complete tasks while observers watch, listen, and take notes. The goal is to identify usability issues and collect qualitative and quantitative data to determine how easy and satisfying a product is to use. Usability testing is important because it provides direct user feedback to help improve products.

2. Question: How do I identify and recruit appropriate users for usability testing?

Answer: Target users who represent your customer demographics and user personas. Leverage existing sources like customer lists, panel providers, and respondent databases. Screen applicants to confirm they match your criteria. Provide incentives tied to test completion. For moderated tests, aim for 6-12 users.

3. Question: What kind of tasks should I include in my usability test?

Answer: Base tasks on key user goals and workflows. Make them realistic, specific, and cover both critical and casual usage. Vary complexity. Pilot test tasks and refine them as needed. Tasks should yield actionable insights.

4. Question: How do I choose between a lab environment and a natural environment for my usability test?

Answer: Labs allow more control, while natural environments add realism. Use lab testing early on for demos and prototypes to get quick feedback. Shift to natural environment testing later to uncover real-world insights before launch.

5. Question: What equipment and software do I need for usability testing?

Answer: For in-person moderated tests, you need a lab space, audio/video recording equipment, eye tracking tools (optional), and data analytics software. For unmoderated remote tests, you need software to present tasks, record sessions, and collect data.

6. Question: What are the best practices for conducting remote unmoderated usability tests?

Answer: Provide clear instructions upfront. Use realistic and specific tasks. Include open-ended feedback questions. Have participants think aloud as they work. Follow up via email or phone on insights. Offer tech support.

7. Question: What is the role of a moderator and how do I become an effective one?

Answer: The moderator facilitates sessions, observes without intervening, probes for feedback, and makes participants comfortable. Effective moderators are objective, build rapport quickly, listen actively, and extract insights.

8. Question: How do I analyze the data collected during a usability test?

Answer: Combine quantitative performance data with qualitative feedback. Identify major trends and user patterns. Flag recurring problems. Compare subjective responses with objective behaviors. Synthesize key insights and recommendations.

9. Question: What are some common mistakes to avoid during usability testing?

Answer: Not recruiting real users, testing too few people, lacking clear goals, poor task design, biasing user behaviors, ignoring environment, not summarizing findings, and disregarding observations.

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