What if you worked hard to create a new app, website, product, or feature only to find out that your users just don’t vibe with it? Usability testing is the key to discovering how real users experience your product before you bring it to market.
The reality is, when you build something, you become deeply familiar with it. So familiar that you might find yourself blind to its flaws.
Just because you and your team find your product perfectly intuitive and enjoyable doesn’t necessarily mean your users will feel the same. That’s where usability testing comes in — it’s the ultimate bias-remover.
Usability testing is the evaluation of a product based on how a sample group of users interacts with it. Through hands-on testing, product developers and marketers get a better understanding of the user experience (UX) through the eyes of people who are unfamiliar with the product.
A usability test begins with marketers and researchers recruiting a group of people who represent a product’s target market. Then, a facilitator leads the group through a series of hands-on tasks under controlled conditions while a researcher observes and takes notes. The researcher asks questions, notes where problems or frustrations arise, and takes stock of how the user experiences the product.
A quick note: From here on out, we’ll use “product” as a blanket term to refer to apps, websites, and other hands-on products that benefit from usability testing.
When you have a team hard at work creating a product from start to finish, they develop a deep understanding of what it’s intended to do and how it works.
In other words, through no fault of their own, your team has blinders on.
Your user, on the other hand, comes in with no prior understanding of things like your product’s value proposition and purpose or how to use its various functions.
Ultimately, usability testing benefits your product. The feedback gathered during this period is used to create a prioritized list of recommended changes to improve the user experience. It can help you identify things like:
By helping you analyze how people use your product, usability testing ensures that you release a product, new feature, or update that real users in your target market can navigate easily and find value in.
The goal of usability testing is to get a better understanding of how real customers engage with, and experience, your product and then use those insights to improve the user experience.
Usability testing benefits include:
Usability testing is about seeing your product through the lens of your user’s experience with it, and then making your product better as a result.
You may think you know when to do usability testing — when your product’s almost ready for launch, right?
For the best results, you should conduct usability tests at different stages throughout your development process, not just when you’re near the finish line. If you wait to perform testing until you’re almost ready to release your product to the world, you’ll lose valuable insight that could have guided the development process in its early stages.
Instead, do usability testing when you have a minimum viable product, and then again when you have a working beta version, and again when you’re close to launching. Let your users guide you along the way.
You should also conduct usability tests when you want to implement a new feature or find new ways to improve your product. After all, few products are truly ever finished when they’re released. There’s always room to grow and improve.
So, here’s the TL;DR. Usability testing is important when you:
Usability testing helps you shift out of development mode, move past any blind spots you’ve developed, and empathize with your users so you’ll build a product that’s focused on both their needs and your goals.
You may sometimes hear the terms “functional testing” and “usability testing” thrown around as if these two types of UX testing were the same. The truth is the two are very different.
Functional testing is a process to test — no surprise here — the functionality of a product. Basically: does the product work? It helps to ensure that the product behaves as it’s intended to without factoring in design or user experience.
Meanwhile usability testing is basically: how does this group use the product?
Both functional testing and usability testing should happen throughout the development of your product. But always perform a functional test before moving on to a usability test. You want to ensure that your product is working as intended — at least as far as you can tell — before you try to gain insight from actual test users.
To perform an effective usability test, you’ll need to assign a facilitator and appoint some observers. Then you’ll assemble your user group and run them through your test tasks. You’ll wrap up by analyzing the data you’ve collected and recommending product improvements based on your findings.
Let’s look a little closer at the steps:
A facilitator (also called a moderator) is the person who administers the usability test tasks to your user group. Their role is to direct the user group to perform various processes with as little how-to guidance as possible.
Your facilitator could take notes during a small-scale test. But with larger tests, it’s ideal to appoint one or more observers to gather intel. That way, the facilitator will be free to concentrate on leading the session while the observer remains laser-focused on the user’s experience.
Who’s going to use your product? Depending on your answer, you’ll need to assemble one or more user groups.
If different segments of your audience will interact with our product in different ways, you’ll need separate groups for each. For example, if you’re developing an app that has both general users and admins, you’ll need separate groups and test tasks for each role.
What is usability testing without the actual tests? You’ll need to prepare about five to 10 tasks for your user groups to perform within a set time frame.
Ask yourself what tasks your user needs to complete to accomplish their goals when they’re using your app. Think:
“My user has to do [TASK] to [GOAL THEY WILL REACH].”
e.g., “My user has to create an account to begin using the app.”
When you prep your usability test tasks, you should:
Now it’s time to test. Gather your test participants, either in a physical location such as a meeting room or in a virtual environment. During the test, the facilitator should administer one task at a time by reading the task explanation.
Heads up! It’s important for the facilitator to explain the test task and then take a step back to let the user figure things out without further guidance. Remember, when your product is out in the world, there won’t be anyone standing over the user’s shoulder to show them how things are supposed to work.
Imagine that the first thing you want your user to do after creating an account is set up a profile. If your facilitator says, “Click the menu to open your profile,” the user has been given directions they wouldn’t otherwise have. Instead, the facilitator should say, “Open your profile,” so your observers can learn whether they’re able to successfully complete the task without help.
As the user is performing the task, the facilitator may ask them to talk through certain steps. What are they trying to accomplish? What’s their decision-making process?
Whenever possible, record your testing process. Although researchers generally observe the tests and take notes, having a recording of the session (either captured live with video equipment or remotely with screen recording software) is invaluable for further analysis and communicating the results to other stakeholders.
Now that you’ve wrapped up testing, it’s time to comb through the piles of data you gathered. So dig in and analyze those recordings, session notes, surveys, and feedback forms.
Of course, data analysis is a huge topic. But let’s review a few basic steps you’ll want to include in your review.
Usability testing isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution for product testing. There are a number of testing methods, and you’ll want to apply the one that feels most useful for your circumstances.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular testing methods and where you might want to use them.
This is the classic usability test we’ve outlined in this post. The user is either in the same room with the researcher or observed remotely with screen-sharing software. The facilitator asks the user to accomplish a series of tasks one by one. The user’s process, reactions, questions, difficulties, and other points of interest are recorded by either the moderator or additional researchers.
Best for: When you need an in-depth analysis of user behavior.
In this test, your user performs a series of tasks without someone watching them in real time. The data from the user’s device is captured for your team to analyze. Your user may also record feedback through a survey.
Best for: Capturing large quantities of data, especially when you’re further evaluating or trying to solve for an issue that cropped up during moderated testing.
This is a variation on the moderated testing theme. Focus groups involve a small group of participants (about 5-10 sample users) gathered in a room to discuss their experience with your product. A moderator generally leads the group through a series of open-ended discussion questions over the course of a couple of hours. The session is recorded so the results can be analyzed.
Focus groups can also answer questions centered around the results of a previous usability test, providing you with further insight.
Best for: Homing in on your user’s attitudes, beliefs, challenges, and needs.
Beyond the structured usability testing process that we’ve talked about here, there are a host of other ways to test how users experience a product. They include:
Here’s the big question: How much does usability testing cost?
The answer isn’t as straightforward as you probably wish it was. Testing costs vary widely depending on a number of factors including:
Speaking in very general terms, usability testing can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands. Naturally, the broader the scope of the test and the more moving parts it has, the more you’ll have to spend.
You’ll also want to remember to budget for more than one usability test. To get everything just right, testing will always be an iterative process.
For an alternative video explanation of UX testing, particularly how to conduct moderated usability testing, watch this:
As we’ve learned here, usability testing can be a complex, layered process. But ultimately, the goal is simple — to gather real sample user input to help you perfect your product.
When you perform effective usability tests, you get insights quickly. Then, you can provide data-supported recommendations.
Your recommendations will help your development team produce a product that functions smoothly, delights your users, and keeps them coming back to it again and again.