Users are an enormously important source of ideas for improving existing and new features. Usability tests are a great way to gain insights from users’ experiences into how a new feature should work or how to better a product. There are numerous ways to conduct usability tests and there is no single ‘perfect’ template that will be appropriate for all situations, but some techniques are universally applicable. The following tips are based on my own experiences and articles by experts in the user experience field.
Before the Test
One of the most important things to do while preparing for a usability test is to create explicit goals and ways to measure success. It is helpful to involve all members of the development team in this phase to ensure that the team’s questions get addressed. Additionally, getting input from all team members ensures that inquiries from multiple perspectives will be brought up about the feature of interest. This will help guide the conversation to gather user feedback on areas of question before development.
It is not a good idea to assume that all team members know the general flow of a usability test. I once had the experience of participating in a usability call with a ux designer, two developers, and a product manager. We were interested in learning where users expected a feature to be located in an interface. The user in the call was asked about his expectations for the future feature’s location, but before he could answer, one of the seasoned developers interrupted and told the user where to navigate in the prototype to access the new feature.
Although the entire usability test was not ruined, one of the important questions that we wanted to explore was corrupted. To avoid a similar situation make sure that all team members, even seasoned developers, who attend usability tests understand the basic purpose and common flows of such activities before the actual testing.
During the Test
Usability tests are all about getting real feedback from users. Constantly interrupting the user during a task will hinder any information that can be gleaned from the process, but it is sometimes hard to interpret what a user is trying to do. A common strategy to solve this issue is to have the user ‘think out loud’ as they go through a task. Hearing what a user expects, finds interesting, or missing while completing a task is often the most insightful information from usability tests. Overall, it is best to keep instruction to a minimum and to allow users to explore during a task.
Sometimes users are frustratingly close to completing a task and it is tempting to intervene with some help. Resist that impulse! Giving initial guidance during usability tests is expected, but interrupting a user before he or she completes a task can destroy learning about a potential pitfall of the interface. If a user is struggling during a task, observing how he or she overcomes the confusion can help guide development of a feature.
After the Test
Once a usability test concludes there is still more work to do. Immediately after the process ends all the observers should discuss and reflect on what they noticed. Having this discussion right after the test will increase the chance that important impressions are not forgotten at a later time.
It is useful to create a summary of the usability test results. This deliverable does not need to follow a strict style, but should include information such as the tasks completed, observations, a recording of the test, and ideas about ways to translate the feedback into the interface. The summary document should not be shared with the team and then ignored during the rest of the development process. It can be referenced during design discussions and should be an important source for feature completion criterion.
I have had the unfortunate experience of being on a team that conducted usability calls only to place all the data from the tests in a shared folder never to be seen again during the development process. Such practices waste time both of the development team and the users. If you take the time to conduct a usability test, use the results.
Usability tests are a great process for gaining insight into how your interface is really used. Every team may have different preferences for the specific way usability tests are conducted, but regardless of that strategy communication between team members is crucial. Making sure that the whole development team understands the goals, general process, and how the results will be used can vastly improve the utility of usability tests.
A few articles on usability testing from other resources:
UX Booth article on preparing to test: link
Usability.gov guide to usability tests: link
UX Mastery user testing in 10 minutes: link
Nielsen Norman Group’s articles on user testing: link