What is usability testing?
In this chapter, we cover the fundamental principles of usability testing – what it is, how it works, what the benefits are, and when to conduct a usability test. By the end of this chapter, you’ll not only understand the essence of usability testing but also appreciate its role in enhancing user satisfaction, identifying usability issues, and driving design improvements.
Understanding usability testing
Usability testing is a UX research method that focuses specifically on the usability of a product. You can use it to test the functionality of your website, app, product, or service with real people by asking them to complete a series of tasks and then observing and noting their behavior and reactions.
It’s a useful way to identify issues and measure how easily users can accomplish given tasks when using your product, so you can make improvements to your designs.
For example, say you’re designing a landing page for a new product feature and want to test the effectiveness of the messaging. You could conduct a five second test, showing participants a screenshot of the new webpage for five seconds and then asking them to recall what the page is about.
The question might be something like, “Based on the messaging you saw, what do you think this webpage is about?” or “What do you think this feature offers?”.
You could then gather and analyze the responses to see if the messaging effectively communicates the feature’s purpose. If the majority of participants are able to correctly identify the purpose, you’re probably on the right track. If not, you might need to tweak the messaging to make it more clear and informative.
This is just one example – there are a number of methods you can use depending on your specific use case.
You can run a usability study at any point in the design process. In fact, the earlier the better. You can also test with low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes, and continue to test with your users well after your product launches.
What usability testing isn’t
Before we get into the rest of the chapter, it’s worth mentioning here that there are several UX research methods that test user experience but aren’t considered usability testing. These include:
A/B testing: This is a useful method to validate whether a certain design works or resonates with your target audience, but it can’t tell you why one version is better than the other.
Focus groups: The goal of focus groups is to learn about people’s opinions, behaviors, and preferences about a topic or product. It’s not to test how the group uses that product.
Surveys: A survey doesn’t allow you to observe participants using your website or product, although they can be a useful tool when used in conjunction with usability testing.
What happens in a usability test?
During an in-person moderated usability test, a moderator asks a participant to complete a series of tasks while they observe and take notes. These tasks can be specific or more open-ended.
Participants are representative users of the product (e.g. they already use the product or are in the target audience) and tasks are activities the participant might perform in real life when using the product.
By observing participants using the product, you can see how easy or difficult it is to complete tasks and whether participants are enjoying the experience. Asking participants to explain their process and provide feedback also gives useful data. These insights can then identify pain points and you can make recommendations on how to improve the design (we’ll get into this in more detail in the chapter on analyzing usability test results).
If you’re running an unmoderated usability test you won’t be able to observe a user’s actions or ask them questions in real time, but the testing tool you’re using should be able to gather similar data.
What’s the difference between user testing and usability testing?
These two terms are often used interchangeably, which can be a bit confusing! So let’s take a moment to look at how the terms “user testing” and “usability testing” are often used across the UX industry.
Some define user testing as the process of validating the demand for a product or service, while usability testing is the practice of testing your designs or product with users by getting them to complete a series of tasks.
Going by these definitions, user testing would typically come before usability testing – the goal is to determine whether users need a product or service. It can also test target audiences to better understand their needs and frustrations. Usability testing can then happen at any stage of the design process to test how users use the product.
Put another way, user testing is user-focused. It asks if users want a particular product, or what product would benefit them. Usability testing is product-focused. It puts your product in the hands of users to test how it works for them.
The two methods have several shared characteristics. They both have an end goal to create a design solution that meets user needs, they both involve observing and listening to users and getting their feedback, and they both look for ways to meet user needs and address pain points.
When trying to work out which method is right for you, focus on your goals, your research questions, and what stage of the product development process you’re in.
Read more: Bookmark our UX dictionary for the ultimate A–Z glossary of user experience terms.
What are the benefits of usability testing?
Now that we understand what usability testing is (and what it isn’t), let’s look at some of the benefits you can gain by testing your designs.
Identify usability problems
Is your design usable and intuitive enough for users to accomplish their goals? Usability testing can reveal areas of confusion and frustration, and uncover opportunities to improve the user experience. It can also reveal accessibility issues and ensure your designs are inclusive of different audiences. The earlier you identify and fix issues, the less time and cost implications you’re likely to face later down the road.
For example, usability testing can help identify navigation issues in your design. By observing users as they navigate through your product, you can identify any confusing or unclear navigation elements, such as labels, buttons, or menus. You can then use this information to improve the user experience and make it easier for your users to find what they’re looking for.
Validate your prototypes
Conduct prototype testing and collect qualitative and quantitative data by identifying how long it takes participants to complete a task using your prototype, asking how satisfied they are with your product, the level of effort or difficulty completing a task, and so on. You can analyze and use this data to make recommendations about how to improve the design.
Learn about the behaviors and preferences of your users
Beyond testing functionality, usability testing is a good way to grasp the use cases of your product and understand your audience better. By observing and recording how users interact with your product, you can gain a better understanding of their needs, pain points, and motivations. You can use this information to tailor your product to meet the specific needs of your users, and create a better overall user experience.
Empathy is a key element in user-centered design. Usability testing can be a good way to develop empathy about the people using your product and look at things from their perspective.
It can also help to build empathy with your team and your stakeholders. By working together to observe and analyze user behavior, team members can develop a shared understanding of the user experience and build a culture of empathy and collaboration. This can help to foster better communication and collaboration, leading to more effective problem-solving and decision-making.
Uncover opportunities to improve
Usability testing can help you discover opportunities to design for needs you’ve overlooked. You can identify areas where your product falls short and come up with creative improvements. For example, you might discover that users are confused by a certain aspect of your product's interface. Armed with this knowledge, you can make design changes to address these issues.
Confirm your product meets user expectations
The expectations and preferences of your users can change over time. By conducting rounds of usability testing after your product launches, you can gather feedback from real users to make sure that your product continues to meet their needs and expectations. By regularly testing and making iterations to your product, you can continue to improve the user experience and maintain a competitive edge in the market.
When should you conduct usability testing?
We encourage you to conduct usability testing iteratively throughout the design process. Start testing early and often to make informed design decisions and, ultimately, more usable designs.
Here are some tips on when to run usability testing throughout your design process.
Before you design
If you’re redesigning a section of your website or app, running a usability test before you start can help you identify areas of the current design that are causing issues for users. By understanding these friction points, you can prioritize areas for improvement in your redesign and ensure that your updated design meets the needs and expectations of your users. This can ultimately lead to higher user satisfaction.
Conducting usability testing before starting your redesign can also help you establish baseline metrics so that you can track progress as you make improvements.
Conducting usability testing when developing a brand new design can also be valuable. For example, you could conduct preference testing to gather user feedback on different design concepts. By involving users early in the design process, you can gather insights to inform your design choices. This can help you create a design that’s not only visually appealing, but also meets the usability and functionality expectations of your target users.
Here are some relevant templates to help you get started:
Once you have a prototype
Prototype testing is an iterative process that involves testing and refining your designs as they evolve from low-fidelity to high-fidelity prototypes. By conducting prototype testing at each stage, you can catch issues and design flaws early on, saving time and resources in the long run. As your prototype becomes more refined, you can test it with more users to gather further feedback.
Here's a prototype test template to help you get started:
Prior to launching your product
Prior to launching your product, it’s important to conduct usability testing to ensure that it’s user-friendly and meets the needs of your target audience. At this stage, you should have a high-fidelity prototype that accurately reflects the final design of your product. You can use this to test your product with real users and evaluate the usability of your design.
Usability testing prior to launch can help you identify any issues or pain points that might prevent users from achieving their goals with your product. It can also help you to uncover any last-minute changes that might be necessary before launch.
Here are some relevant prototype test templates you can adapt to suit your needs:
Regularly after your product launches
As we mentioned above, regularly testing your product after it launches can help ensure that it continues to meet the needs of your users and remains effective. This can involve testing for usability and functionality, as well as gathering feedback on new features or updates.
By regularly conducting these tests, you can identify any issues or areas for improvement, and make updates or changes as necessary. Additionally, ongoing usability testing can help you stay competitive in the market by keeping your product up-to-date and meeting the changing needs of your users.
Mastering the fundamentals of usability testing
In this chapter, we explored what usability testing is, what happens in a usability test, the difference between user testing and usability testing, and the benefits and ideal timing of conducting usability testing.
Here are the top takeaways from this chapter:
Usability testing focus: Usability testing is an important UX research method that centers on assessing how effectively users can interact with a product. By watching real users complete tasks and gauging their experiences, you can identify issues and refine designs.
Early and iterative testing: Conduct usability tests early and iteratively throughout the design process. This approach helps in making informed design decisions, spotting problems early, and ultimately delivering more user-friendly designs.
Advantages of testing: Usability testing helps you spot usability problems, validate prototypes, gain insights into user behavior and preferences, build empathy within your team, uncover opportunities for improvement, and ensure your product aligns with user expectations.
Pre-launch and post-launch testing: Timing is key. Run usability tests before you start a redesign or when developing a new design. Prior to launch, ensure that your product is user-friendly and meets target audience needs. Post-launch, regular testing keeps your product competitive and user-centric.
By understanding these core principles, you’re well-equipped to incorporate regular usability testing throughout your design and development process.