The Beginner’s Guide to Usability Testing

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August 6, 2018 11:30 am Published by

My favorite part of the writing process is when my editor reviews my work. By the time I’ve submitted the first draft of most of my blog posts, I’ve invested so much time and effort into my piece that I’m too emotionally attached to it. I need to distance myself from it.

My editor also has fresh editing eyes, so she can discover any overlooked errors and new creative opportunities to sharpen my piece. After I address her edits, my piece always looks more polished.

Asking other people to evaluate your work applies to almost every discipline, especially user experience and design. It’s not smart to rely on yourself when evaluating your own product or website design. You’re partial towards it, and that can skew your perception of reality. Learning directly from the people that your work is actually for — your users — is what enables you to craft the best user experience possible.

UX and design professionals leverage usability testing to get user feedback on their product or website’s user experience all the time. So we interviewed some of HubSpot’s Senior UX Researchers and Designers to teach you what exactly usability testing is, its benefits, and how to effectively conduct your own study.

UX researchers will usually conduct usability studies on each iteration of their product from its early development to its release. This allows UX researchers to uncover any problems with their product’s user experience, decide how to fix these problems, and ultimately determine if the product is usable enough.

Identifying and fixing these early issues saves the company both time and money: developers don’t have to overhaul the code of a poorly designed product that’s already built, and the product team is more likely to release it on schedule.

During a usability study, the moderator asks participants in their individual user session to complete a series of tasks while the rest of the team observes and takes notes. By watching their actual users navigate their product or website and listening to their praises and concerns about it, they can see when the participants can quickly and successfully complete tasks and where they’re enjoying the user experience, encountering problems, and experiencing confusion.

After conducting their study, they’ll analyze the results and report any interesting insights to the project lead.

Benefits of Usability Testing

Usability testing has five major advantages over the other methods of examining a product’s user experience, like a questionnaire:

  • Usability testing provides an unbiased, accurate, and direct examination of your product or website’s user experience. By testing its usability on a sample of actual users who are detached from the amount of emotional investment your team has put into creating and designing the product or website, their feedback can resolve most of your team’s internal debates.
  • Usability testing is convenient. To conduct your study, all you have to do is find a quiet room and bring in portable recording equipment. If you don’t have recording equipment, someone on your team can just take notes.
  • Usability testing can tell you what your users do on your site or product and why they take these actions.
  • Usability testing lets you address your product’s or website’s issues before you spend a ton of money creating something that ends up having a poor design.
  • For your business, intuitive design boosts customer usage and their results, driving demand for your product.

The 9 Phases of a Usability Study

1. Decide which part of your product or website you want to test.

Do you have any pressing questions about how your users will interact with certain parts of your design, like a particular interaction or workflow? Or are you wondering what users will do first when they land on your product page? Gather your thoughts about your product or website’s pros, cons, and areas of improvement, so you can create a solid hypothesis for your study.

2. Pick your study’s tasks.

Your participants’ tasks should be your user’s most common goals when they interact with your product or website, like making a purchase.

3. Set a standard for success.

Once you know what to test and how to test it, make sure to set clear criteria to determine success for each task. For instance, when I was in a usability study for HubSpot’s Content Strategy tool, I had to add a blog post to a cluster and report exactly what I did. Setting a threshold of success and failure for each task lets you determine if your product’s user experience is intuitive enough or not.

4. Write a study plan and script.

At the beginning of your script, you should include the purpose of the study, if you’ll be recording, some background on the product or website, questions to learn about the participants’ current knowledge of the product or website, and, finally, their tasks. To make your study consistent, unbiased, and scientific, moderators should follow the same script in each user session.

5. Delegate roles.

During your usability study, the moderator has to remain neutral, carefully guiding the participants through the tasks while strictly following the script. Whoever on your team is best at staying neutral, not giving into social pressure, and making participants feel comfortable while pushing them to complete the tasks should be your moderator

Note-taking during the study is also just as important. If there’s no recorded data, you can’t extract any insights that’ll prove or disprove your hypothesis. Your team’s most attentive listener should be your note-taker during the study.

6. Find your participants

Screening and recruiting the right participants is the hardest part of usability testing. Most usability experts suggest you should only test five participants during each study, but your participants should also closely resemble your actual user base. With such a small sample size, it’s hard to replicate your actual user base in your study.

To recruit the ideal participants for your study, create the most detailed and specific persona as you possibly can and incentivize them to participate with a gift card or another monetary reward.

Recruiting colleagues from other departments who would potentially use your product is also another option. But you don’t want any of your team members to know the participants because their personal relationship can create bias — since they want to be nice to each other, the researcher might help a user complete a task or the user might not want to constructively criticize the researcher’s product design.

7. Conduct the study.

During the actual study, you should ask your participants to complete one task at a time, without your help or guidance. If the participant asks you how to do something, don’t say anything. You want to see how long it takes users to figure out your interface.

Asking participants to “think out loud” is also an effective tactic — you’ll know what’s going through a user’s head when they interact with your product or website.

After they complete each task, ask for their feedback, like if they expected to see what they just saw, if they would’ve completed the task if it wasn’t a test, if they would recommend your product to a friend, and what they would change about it. This qualitative data can pinpoint more pros and cons of your design.

8. Analyze your data.

You’ll collect a ton of qualitative data after your study. Analyzing it will help you discover patterns of problems, gauge the severity of each usability issue, and provide design recommendations to the engineering team.

When you analyze your data, make sure to pay attention to both the users’ performance and their feelings about the product. It’s not unusual for a participant to quickly and successfully achieve your goal but still feel negatively about the product experience.

9. Report your findings.

After extracting insights from your data, report the main takeaways and lay out the next steps for improving your product or website’s design and the enhancements you expect to see during the next round of testing.

The 3 Most Common Types of Usability Tests

1. Hallway/Guerilla Usability Testing

This is where you set up your study somewhere with a lot of foot traffic. It allows you to ask randomly-selected people who have most likely never even heard of your product or website, — like passers-by — to evaluate its user-experience.

2. Remote/Unmoderated Usability Testing

Remote/unmoderated usability testing has two main advantages: it uses third-party software to recruit target participants for your study, so you can spend less time recruiting and more time researching. It also allows your participants to interact with your interface by themselves and in their natural environment — the software can record video and audio of your user completing tasks.

Letting participants interact with your design in their natural environment with no one breathing down their neck can give you more realistic, objective feedback. When you’re in the same room as your participants, it can prompt them to put more effort into completing your tasks since they don’t want to seem incompetent around an expert. Your perceived expertise can also lead to them to please you instead of being honest when you ask for their opinion, skewing your user experience’s reactions and feedback.

3. Moderated Usability Testing

Moderated usability testing also has two main advantages: interacting with participants in person or through a video a call lets you ask them to elaborate on their comments if you don’t understand them, which is impossible to do in an unmoderated usability study. You’ll also be able to help your users understand the task and keep them on track if your instructions don’t initially register with them.

How to Ask Usability Testing Questions

Following one script or even a template of questions for every one of your usability studies wouldn’t make any sense — each study’s subject matter is different. You’ll need to tailor your questions to the things you want to learn, but most importantly, you’ll need to know how to ask good questions.

The tips below from one of HubSpot’s Senior UX researchers, Julie Fischer, will teach you how to ask the right questions during a usability study:

– Don’t ask leading questions that insert your own bias or opinion into the participants’ mind. They’ll end up doing what you want them to do instead of what they would do by themselves.

– Ask participants how they would complete a goal or task in the product or on the website instead of telling them what to do next.

– When participants ask “What will this do?,” it’s best to reply with the question “What do you expect it to do?” rather than telling them the answer.

Your Work Could Always Use a Fresh Perspective

Letting another person review and possibly criticize your work takes courage — no one wants a bruised ego. But most of the time, when you allow people to constructively criticize or even rip apart your article or product design, especially when your work is intended to help these people, your final result will be better than you could’ve ever imagined.

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