Usability Testing 101

So how do you do this elusive thing called a usability test? ClickZ and Digital Web Magazine have writeups on it,  and User Interface Engineering has an article on the Common Usability Testing Mistakes.  

There are different approaches, depending on what stage of development you’re in, but the basic premise stays the same:

  1. Develop a test plan. The “meat” of the plan is the tasks you’ll have the users attempt. 4 to 6 tasks is a reasonable number. Don’t try to include too many, or your test gets too long. Too few, and you don’t cover enough ground. Here’s a Usability Test Plan Template you can use.
  2. Find some representative users. They can be friends or relatives, but they need to be from your target user group. Some people have temp agencies hire people for testing, but I find it easier to just start asking around. (Make sure you have lots!) Most people are very willing to participate–all you have to do is ask. Dana Chiswell provides some useful tips on choosing participants.
  3. Perform the test. Sit down with the users, one at at time, and have them attempt the tasks in your test plan. Ask them to think out loud as they go, so you can understand what they’re thinking. You may be tempted to show them how it works–don’t! It’s critical that you let them struggle through it on their own so you can see where the software doesn’t make sense for them. According to Jakob Nielsen, you only need 5 users–I find you need anywhere from 3 up to 10–once you start hearing the same story from each user, you can quit.
  4. Observe, ask questions, and learn. Some people aren’t very talkative, so you have to ask a few probing questions to get their thoughts. It’s helpful to record the session using something like Morae or WebEx. Use a webcam to capture facial expressions, if you can. Little video clips from the test can be an invaluable (and extremely convincing) communication tool!
  5. Give the participant a gift. It’s important to thank your participants. Some people pay them. I think it’s nice to give them a gift. Make the gift proportional to the value of their time.
  6. Analyze the results. Look for common ground amongst participants. Where did they struggle? What frustrated them? What did they like about it?
  7. Present the results. Always, always, always start the presentation with “the good stuff”, but warn your audience that you’re going to give them the bad news next. They to know your intent is to help build a better product, not to cut them down. It’s important that they know there will be some bad news, though, and when it’s coming. Use video clips from the test to underscore your findings. The clips are often painful for developers to watch, but they get the point across.

I really like what John M says about Usability testing:

“Whilst planning for Usability Testing, its easy to constrain it to be more of a “Validation” type technique. Usability testing & the information gathered from the exercise, should serve to make informed design & development decisions right from the outset, thereby acting in more of a “preventative” role.   The idea in the case of Usability testing is to test early & test often. Usability testing lets the design and development teams identify problems before they are deeply entrenched. The earlier those problems are found and fixed, the less expensive the fixes are. As the project progresses, it becomes more and more difficult and expensive to make major design changes. The more you test and change based on what you learn, the more confident you can be that your application will meet your objectives and your users’ needs when it is released.”

 So, with a little usability testing, you can avoid situations like this:

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1 Response to “Usability Testing 101”


  1. 1 commander other March 14, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    totally unrelated, your stupid husband has tagged you with a stupid meme, maybe one that you can convert (as others have) to your own nefarious purposes!


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