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Easy Usability Testing Methods Worth Trying

At UX-driven shops, usability testing is often baked into the DNA of the company and not a single pixel sees the light of day without first being scrutinized and tested. Meanwhile, other organizations may have never done so much as gazed over a user’s shoulder as they attempted to interact with their products.

If your organization falls into the second category, chances are user testing was ruled out during the development planning process due to a perceived lack of resources or an overabundance of confidence about what’s being built. However, there are a litany of reasons to undertake even the smallest tests while you’re still in the development phase."Words and phrases matter to the users. With content, you think you've got it nailed down, then you see users get stuck on something really simple. Without hearing [the feedback] on the way, we wouldn't know why the site was not working later… It's hard to drill down into why people are doing or not doing something. It's hard to do with just analytics. When you hear and see people react, you can get into their heads and make decisions based on this." says Margret Schmidt, VP of User Experience & Design at TiVo.When it comes down to it, there is nothing that can truly replicate the experience of watching and listening to someone interacting with your product, says Dana Chisnell, co-author of Handbook of Usability Testing:

“I contend that 80% of the value of testing comes from the magic of observing and listening as people use a design. The things you see and the things you hear are often surprising, illuminating, and unpredictable. This unpredictability is tough to capture in any other way.”

The value of usability testing is obvious, and while few product managers would argue AGAINST some form of user testing, many aren’t willing to argue FOR it without buy in from management and limited resources. The reality is that user testing doesn’t have to be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. There are a number of tactics for conducting usability testing that don’t require a big budget, an outside consultant, or major overtime.

In This Article:

  • The 5 Second Usability Test
  • Remote Usability Testing: Forget the One-Way Mirrors and Use Web Conferencing
  • Guerilla Usability Testing: Test the Product Where People Actually Use the Product
  • Stick to Short, Open-Ended Questions
  • When Possible, Try Not to Ask Any Questions At All
  • Less is More...and When You Use Less You Can Test More
  • Mobile App Testing (Yes, You Need to Test Apps, Too)
  • Customer Training and Onboarding is a UX Testing Opportunity
  • The TL;DR

The 5 Second Usability Test

Have 5 seconds to spare and some content pages that need to be tested? Perhaps the fastest testing trick is conducting a “five-second test” to see if your pages or screens are quickly communicating the key points to users or confounding them with too much clutter or text. This method can be used to test multiple versions of your site/product or to compare your site/product to the competition.You’ll first want to gather the screens you’d like to test and a willing subject. Let the subject know that they will only see each screen for five seconds (this will ensure they are actually paying attention), and then show them the first screen in question for five seconds before taking it away or turning it off.“Five seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but users make important judgments in the first moments they visit a page. This technique unveils how those judgments turn out, giving the team insight into some essential information about the page,” says Christine Perfetti of Perfetti Media in a post on the User Interface Engineering blog.When the five seconds are up, ask the subject some questions about what they saw and what they can recall. You should have the questions prepared in advance, and will want to stick to the important things such as whether they could tell what the point of the screen was (i.e. “What was this site about?”), if they understood the site/app (i.e. “What can you do on this page?”), and if it was obvious what and where the call-to-action was (i.e. “How do you think you would sign up for a free trial?”).Repeat this process with the other screens you want to include in your test and ask the same set of questions after each screen. Three or four different 5-second tests are probably the max you want to run in one go.After you have shown the user all of the screens, you can then ask them questions about their preferences and how the screens compare (i.e. “Which site would you most likely sign up for?” or “Which site seems like it would be the easiest to use?”).While it’s obviously great to run these kinds of tests with test subjects that match your customer profiles, even running them with people in your own company can help you spot glaring errors quickly. There are also sites that will find testers for you.A final tip on this testing strategy from Christine Perfetti: “We've found the technique is best when we use it on pages designed with a single primary purpose. Home pages and major navigation pages don't yield as valuable results, because they often serve many different tasks.”

Remote Usability Testing: Forget the One-Way Mirrors and Use Web Conferencing

Even though one of the best things a product manager can do is get out of the office, usability testing doesn’t necessarily require you to go anywhere. There are a number of remote testing solutions that allow you to conduct tests and interact with participants without either of you having to leave their desks. This has three key advantages:

  • You are not inconveniencing your participants as much as you would be if you were asking them to come to you, so you are more likely to get higher quality participants
  • You can conduct tests with people all over the country (or the world) without travel expenses
  • You can invite multiple team members from multiple offices sit in on the tests and observe

There are several screen sharing tools that can be used for web-based tests or situations where the user already has the software installed on their computer, many of which are free. When you start the meeting, have the user share their screen and give them tasks to complete while asking them questions or letting them tell you what they’re thinking. You can also use a screen recording app to save things for later (and to help you make your case with those unable to watch the tests live).The best part of remote user testing is that you can do it any time you’d like, and if your site has a reasonable amount of web traffic, you can find participants instantly. Nate Bolt, Design Research Manager at Facebook explains, “You can use an online web form to intercept qualified visitors in real time, and then call them or email them right away to begin a session. This strategy is called “live recruiting,” and it allows you to get insight about the tasks that people really care about rather than creating pre-determined tasks for them. It’s the difference between watching someone manage their own finances versus asking them to pretend to.”

Guerilla Usability Testing: Test the Product Where People Actually Use the Product

For many usability tests, renting out fancy testing facilities does more harm than good. Instead, why not try to test things out in the same settings where people are actually going to use your product?

  • Building a recipe app? See how well it works on an iPad while someone is actually cooking, wet hands and apron included.
  • Designing a solution for field service personnel? Find out whether they can see the screen clearly when the sun is shining or use it with one hand while they’re holding a wrench in the other.
  • Creating a new vector imaging tool? See how those icons and buttons look on an actual designer’s set-up in their home office.

“Where we conduct tests affects how we perform and document our work. For instance, if we’re testing a new mobile app for a retail chain, we might go to the store itself and walk the aisles; if we’re working on “general” office software, we might test it with coworkers in a different part of the office; etc. The point is: let context drive the work,” David Peter Simon, Experience Designer at ThoughtWorks writes.Conducting these on-site tests also keeps your budget down to almost nothing, says Jim Ross, Principal of Design at Electronic Ink, “For the cheapest usability testing, skip all the extras—the lab and the fancy equipment—grab a pen and a pad of paper and go to the participants’ locations—their homes or workplaces. At the most basic level, usability testing is just a usability professional observing a participant at a computer and taking notes with pen and paper. All the other technologies are just helpful extras.” (Source.)

Stick to Short, Open-Ended Questions

Some of the best feedback you’re going to get from your users is the feedback you never expected to hear. If the sole purpose of your user testing is to validate your existing ideas and opinions, you may miss out on important feedback that identifies new problems. If you ask your subjects multiple choice questions, you may have already steered the responses into how YOU see the situation, and that’s not much more useful than taking the test yourself.Open ended questions are one way to keep your own cognitive biases out of your testing, so instead of asking leading or multiple choice questions, try asking questions that start with Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How and then sit back and let the user find their way to an answer.“Learn to be comfortable with silence. Allow your respondent to think; don’t jump in with possible answers after a few seconds pass. You won’t get answers if you keep talking, and you’ll rarely learn anything if you offer all the answers” advises Shane Snow, CCO of Contently in a Fast Company article.

When Possible, Try Not to Ask Any Questions At All

If your test involves asking a user to complete a task, one of the best methods for gleaning some insight is simply asking them to provide their own narration by thinking out loud.“The method has a host of advantages. Most important, it serves as a window on the soul, letting you discover what users really think about your design. In particular, you hear their misconceptions, which usually turn into actionable redesign recommendations: when users misinterpret design elements, you need to change them. Even better, you usually learn why users guess wrong about some parts of the UI and why they find others easy to use” says Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman GroupThere are several benefits to this tactic; It’s cheap since you don’t have to hire an expert interviewer (or even spend much time preparing yourself), it will undoubtedly reveal something you would have never thought to ask a user, and it can help you build out a more complete sense of what your users care about and what they are thinking about when they try to use your product.

Less is More...and When You Use Less You Can Test More

In many ways, usability tests can be the opposite of using analytics to optimize your user experience; instead of relying on data (lots of it) you are trying to understand the human element of the experience to make your user experience superior. In that regard, when you are trying to see how a specific element of your product works, five users is often plenty to see if there is an obvious issue or improvement opportunity.“As you add more and more users, you learn less and less because you will keep seeing the same things again and again. There is no real need to keep observing the same thing multiple times, and you will be very motivated to go back to the drawing board and redesign the site to eliminate the usability problems. After the fifth user, you are wasting your time by observing the same findings repeatedly but not learning much new.” says Jakob Nielsen in an article on the Nielsen Norman Group blog.So, in many cases, once you have tested something with five users, you can go ahead and conserve your resources and save them up to test something different with five more users down the line or you can go back and re-test a specific element after you have tried to improve it.

Mobile App Testing (Yes, You Need to Test Apps, Too)

While mobile applications aren’t always as easy to user test as websites or computer programs, there’s no excuse to skimp on the testing. In fact, it may even be more important as the majority of users chose good experience design over brand loyalty and the majority will abandon a mobile app if it is too difficult to use. (Source.)For some tasks, a paper prototype might be an easier and cheaper alternative to attempting to capture the mobile user experience during a test. There are also some web-based simulators that can do the job decently. However, there is nothing as valuable as testing mobile apps on an actual device.“By employing user’s own devices and network connections we found issues that we would not have picked up if we had just used our iPhone and fast office wireless connection.” Tania Lang of Peak Usability observed while conducting mobile UX testing across several devices for an insurance site.

Customer Training and Onboarding is a UX Testing Opportunity

If your company relies on any kind of high-touch customer support or account management, then you are probably conducting user training or onboarding sessions on a regular basis. These are the perfect time to gather a little user input because you already know that the participants are highly interested in using your product but don’t have any experience using it yet (which can be pretty difficult to find otherwise).You can turn these teachable moments into “testable moments” by telling a customer about a feature and asking them to use it while they share their screen and observing where they struggle or succeed. Be sure to note what questions they have and ask them questions of your own afterward about their experience and what they would like to see changed.


UX testing doesn’t have to be an expensive or time-consuming project for your team to take on, there’s an assortment of simple usability test strategies that your organization can apply throughout your product’s lifecycle to ensure that your customers are able to use your app, game, or website without confusion. (or if you’d prefer, you can pay this guy $500 to get drunk and test your site.)

Heather McCloskey