Usability testing

Usability testing is a fundamental technique for testing products and services with model users.

What is Usability testing?

Usability testing is an evaluation technique used to test the product or service by testing it with representative users. It is a very important part of the development process because it reveals how real users use the product.

In most cases, users are asked to complete tasks, while researchers observe them. The objective is to identify usability problems that could prevent achieving it's intended purpose.

What it is not?

The crucial difference between usability testing and other testing methods is that usability tests use real users of the product and not developers who tend to look at their product from the expert point of view.

It is also not a form of qualitative research, because it is not just about showing a product to the user and asking questions but also immersing them in the product itself and watching them using it.

Planning a Usability Test

This is the first phase in usability testing. The goal of the plan should be to specify the course and methods of the action. It should also include the number of participants and the required time to conduct it.

The internal course of action depends on the company's size and structure. In bigger companies, there can be usability specialist who will then meet with the developers and possibly other responsible company members to determine goals and techniques of the testing. In smaller companies, this task will be more dispersed throughout the company. Often, all or almost all employees will be involved in specifying details of usability testing.

The usability test plan should include these elements:

  • Goal – It can vary from some simple issues like finding a button on the web page to the more complex issues like completing the purchase.
  • Scope – It should be specified what will be tested. That could be for example navigation of the web page.
  • Schedule – Time and sessions should be specified. It is good to define the sessions in order to inform participants about the time needed.
  • Location – Where will testing take place. It will mostly be in the company's offices.
  • Participants – Number and category of the participants involved.
  • Equipment – Required hardware like PCs and smartphones.
  • Tasks – Specified number and types of tasks that fit in the desired time frame.
  • Metrics – Measured data in the tasks.

Before conducting a usability test it is important to run the pilot test. It can be one or a few days prior to the first test session. This allows testing of the equipment and also give some more time to examiners for practice and for possible modifications.

Moderated and Unmoderated Usability Testing

Moderated usability testing is a technique that assumes active involvement of the examiner. It is usually conducted by experts in the company's quarters. Examiners guide the whole process by observing users, asking questions, answering questions and making notes. This technique is particularly important in the early development phases because it sets course for the whole product improvements.

Unmoderated usability testing is a technique that is conducted by users in their own environment without the involvement of the examiner. This conditions make this technique faster, cheaper and provides immediate results but also far less accurate than moderated usability testing. For this reason, it is usually used to test some elements of the product.

Recommended Practices for Examiners

Successful usability testing depends very much on the examiner's willingness to employ practices that are proven to bring results, like:

  • Users should feel comfortable
  • Examiner should stay neutral
  • User should lead
  • Avoiding explanation
  • Examiner must not go too fast or too slow
  • Yes and No questions should be minimized
  • Notes of the process must be detailed

Main Groups of Usability Testing Methods

Groups of Usability Testing Methods can be classified into three major categories:

  • Explorative Usability Testing – It is used in the early stages of development in order to provide information about the desired look and usability of the website. Users are given practical tasks based on wireframes of the product and obtained information is used to correct the flaws.
  • Comparative Usability Testing – It is used to compare the usability of two websites. This sites can be competitors, websites with similar interface or activity or two or more designs of the same website.
  • Usability Evaluation – It is used to test new or renewed functions of the website. Flaws should be corrected before the final version of the product.

Usability Testing Methods

The most common usability testing methods are:

  • Hallway testing – Randomly-chosen people passing in a hallway or somewhere else are asked to test the product or service. This method is popular because it is cheap and quick.
  • Remote Usability Testing – It involves people from different countries and may be different time zones. There are two types of this method: synchronous and asynchronous.
  • Synchronous remote usability testing uses video conferencing and sharing tools like WebEx. This allows developers to observe how particular people use a product in real time. The problem could be that users may live in different time zones and they should be assembled at the same time, usually in their company's offices.
  • Asynchronous remote usability testing uses the automatic gathering of information through specific tasks that users have to achieve. This information consists of actions like user's click streams and errors that happened while dealing with the application. Users are also asked to give feedback on the interface. By these means, feedback can be better classified by, for example, user's behavioral type. These tests usually take place in the user's own environment, that can be also their home, which makes them more realistic. Because of these benefits, this method is very common.
  • Expert Review – It uses experts experienced in usability testing to evaluate the usability of the application. This method enables companies to receive detailed analysis in a relatively short time. A drawback is that experts tend to look at usability predominantly through their professional perspective and forget about users needs. They can also use automated expert reviews in the form of programs which are used to find user's behavior patterns in order to determine usability problems. There is also a heuristic evaluation of an interface conducted by one or more human factors experts. Evaluators measure the usability, efficiency, and effectiveness of the application interface based on 10 usability heuristics originally defined by Jakob Nielsen in 1994. They include:
  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation
  • A/B Testing – This method involves an experiment with two variants of the website in order to determine changes to the website needed to increase the website's effectiveness. Versions A and B are compared, which are almost identical, except for one variation that could influence the user's behavior. One version is the one currently used and the other is the modified version. Small improvements in website usability can lead to big improvements in conversions. That is why it is important to do this test repeatedly.

Variation of A/B testing is Multivariate testing. This testing is conducted like A/B testing but more than two versions of the test are used.

Reporting Usability Testing Results

Usability testing report should include these basic elements:

  • Summary – Contains information about the: tested product, time and place of testing, equipment, examiners, good sides of the product and problems that occurred during the test.
  • Methodology – Contains explained test sessions and tasks used.
  • Test Results – Deals with numbers of users who achieved or failed the desired goal, elapsed time and user satisfaction.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Usability Testing

Benefits of Usability Testing:

  • An immediate response from the targeted users
  • Awareness of the changes needed to improve the website
  • Reduction of costs due to the early recognition of problems
  • Reduction of time required for improvements due to instantaneous user feedback
  • Overall higher possibility for reaching the desired goals of the company

Drawbacks of Usability Testing:

  • Users can behave differently than in real life knowing they are solving a test
  • Experts sometimes look too technically at the usability, forgetting about the target group
  • Automated programs are limited to statistical information, without dealing with details


Usability Testing is an essential evaluation technique for any website that is determined to increase conversions. No matter of its size it will have significant benefits for improving its usability. This technique cannot entirely simulate user usage and sometimes also performance and preference metrics don't match but it is a good approach to getting closer to achieve this goal. Repeated use of this technique leads to a profound understanding of users needs. This aspect is today widely recognized in the business world and we can expect that it will be even more in the future.

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