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Design, Test, Design Again: Our Approach to Usability Testing

There’s no denying the vital role usability testing plays in the creation of a successful website. Without taking that crucial step of asking real users to engage with a design prototype to see what actually does and doesn’t work, important insights and opportunities to optimize the experience may be lost.

Here, we’ll be sharing a crash course in usability testing to help you understand the important role it plays in successful design. We’ll also give you some of our experts’ top tips for successful usability testing to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time and effort.

What is Usability Testing

Usability testing is a research method that user experience (UX) professionals use to gauge the functionality of their product (an app, website, etc.) and to determine whether their product can be used easily and is ready to be released. 

Usability testing typically involves participants performing specific real-life case scenario tasks. For example, if the product being tested is a new parking payment app, users may be asked to first register a license plate number and then pay for two hours’ worth of parking in a specific parkade. 

Participants may be videotaped or have their screens recorded while completing the tasks. They are sometimes asked to narrate aloud what they are doing so the facilitator can understand their thought process as they move through the task.

Benefits of usability tests

Why We Do It

So, why do we do usability testing? Surely UX experts know what makes for a great interface for the products they design.

Well, yes and no. 

UX designers know the best practices and from experience what works, but even the best of them can’t design a perfect interface the first time. And even if they think they have, they need to see how real, non-professional users are going to interact with their design, and then see what changes can make it better. 

When we’re conducting usability testing, there are a variety of goals we’re trying to achieve: 

  • Identify common pain points in the design. Where are the places that users struggle or stumble most often? 
  • Decide on the best way to improve those pain points. What can we do to mitigate or eliminate them?
  • Learn about unexpected ways users interact with the design. What insights into their preferences or approach to the interface did we gain?

In one recent usability test we conducted for Queen’s University, we ran moderated one-on-one sessions with individuals from their three primary audience groups. Each participant was given a specific scenario and set of tasks to accomplish on a dynamic prototype. Participants were also asked for general feedback on their impression of the new site design. 

Running this study was incredibly valuable, as we were able to identify and solve one usability and two content discovery issues, and improved the mega menu due to the findings of the usability tests. 

Types of Testing

There are three broad categories of usability testing:

  • Moderated or unmoderated
  • Remote or in person
  • Qualitative or Quantitative

Moderated vs Unmoderated

Moderated vs. Unmoderated Testing

A moderated usability test is led by a trained facilitator who guides the testers through the process, answering their questions and probing for more information through follow-up questions.

An unmoderated session is performed without direct supervision. An expert sets the tasks to be completed and reviews the results, but isn’t available to participants throughout the testing process.

Remote vs In person

Remote vs In-person Testing

In remote user testing, the users typically participate from their own device on a platform built for user testing, such as Loop11, or through screen-sharing or video conferencing software like Zoom.

In-person testing is done, as the name implies, in person. Participants come to a dedicated location and perform all tasks there.

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether to choose remote or in-person testing. Remote testing is typically less time-intensive and less expensive than in-person testing and may allow you access to a wider range of users. However, there are downsides, including the potential for technical difficulties and the limited non-verbal communication that comes with not being physically present.

Qualitative vs Quantitative Testing

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Testing

Qualitative testing is the more common type of usability testing. It’s looking for insights and information on how people interact with the interface. Testers are typically asked to share their impressions about the product and their thoughts and feelings as they move through the steps of completing the assigned tasks. Since one of the goals of usability testing is solving problems users encounter with the design, qualitative testing is frequently employed to discover what those pain points are. 

In contrast, quantitative usability testing is focused on collecting benchmarks and metrics about the user’s experience. Task completion rate and the time it takes to complete a task are the most common quantitative measurements in usability testing.

Mix and Match

Every usability test will be defined by one attribute from each pair. For example, a user test can be remote + unmoderated + quantitative, but not remote + moderated + unmoderated. It's common for moderated testing to be of a qualitative nature, with facilitators asking follow-up questions during the session. In remote testing, users tend to complete tasks on their mobile phones or computers while at home, with the outcomes reviewed after the fact by a researcher/UX designer.

Tips for Moderating a Usability Test

We asked our experts to share some of their top tips for conducting usability tests. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Send out reminders before each session. It helps to prevent the 'no-show'. You can also add to the invite a document explaining what the session will be about, how long it will last and how they can prepare beforehand by downloading any important documents.
  • Have a note taker present during the test. This lets you focus on the conversation and observations without worrying about getting it all written down. If you can’t have a notetaker, make sure to record the session so you can refer to it afterwards. Always make sure to have the verbal agreement of the participant for the recording.
  • Always test your test and the software you’ll be using with a friend or colleague before testing on your first interviewee.
  • Don’t just drive right in. Open the session by asking some general questions to make the participant feel comfortable.
  • Make sure to ask the participant to think out loud and also ask them to let you know before clicking on something. We often use a prototype which is not the actual website and some functionalities are limited so we don't necessarily want them to click everywhere.
  • Have a list of probing questions on hand (ex: “How does that make you feel?”, “Why do you think that is?”, or “Can you tell me more about that?”). Those types of questions help you get more specific answers and in-depth information.
  • Don't expect the interview to go perfectly as planned. Have a list of the functionalities or pages you want to test, so you can come back to it if the interview takes a turn and you need to come back to a previous flow.

tips for moderating a usability test

Tools We Love For Usability Testing

Moderated Testing

  • Calendly - our favourite tool for scheduling meetings 
  • Zoom - the easiest to use video conferencing platform, in our opinion
  • Figma Prototyping - this tool lets you create interactive prototypes to test with the user, no coding is required
  • Miro - an online whiteboard tool we love for remote testing sessions

Unmoderated Testing

  • Loop11 - this tool lets you set up and run usability tests for wireframes, prototypes, websites and apps
  • Optimal Workshop - this is a powerful set of tools that lets you run various types of tests, such as card sorts, first-click testing, and tree testing, to name just a few

We know this is a lot to take in, and this is just scratching the surface of the possibilities of usability testing. 

Want a helping hand to guide you through usability testing?