Prototyping & usability testing

Intro to usability testing

Ludovic Delmas
November 5, 2020

Have you ever been caught in an argument that was going nowhere? 

You each made good points, and repeated them, and repeated them. At the end of the day, neither of you had the evidence to support your claims. You may as well have been talking to a wall. When building a product, usability testing is one of the best ways to avoid those arguments because it gives you evidence to back up your decisions. 

We've been questioned many times during our careers about our design decisions. Usually, we can back up our choices with evidence because we base our designs on research and usability testing. Without evidence, the only supporting arguments for design choices are opinions, which can be challenged by others. That’s not a situation you want to be in as a UX designer. 

It’s important to know how to prepare for and run usability tests on your own to validate your designs. And while not every project needs usability testing, your decisions should, to the extent possible, be based on research. 

So now let’s answer the question, what is usability testing? 

Usability.gov defines it this way: 

"Usability testing refers to evaluating a product or service by testing it with representative users. During a test, participants will try to complete typical tasks while observers watch, listen, and take notes. The goal is to identify any usability problems, collect qualitative and quantitative data, and to determine the participant's satisfaction with the product."

Remember the definition of UX? It's the process of making a product useful, relevant, and meaningful for people. That's what you're testing for. You're testing to assess if your product is useful and easy to understand and navigate. You're also testing if it's valuable and desirable. 

Think of usability tests like experiments that scientists run. 

That's precisely what you're doing here, but instead of testing a chemical reaction, you're examining how well your interface meets user needs. And just as a scientist conducts experiments to answer certain questions, UX designers do the same with usability testing. 

Before starting usability testing, it's essential to have a reason for testing and what you’ll do with the results. That's where the usability testing plan comes in. It keeps you on track and ensures that you've tailored the prototype to the test you’re running.

Usability testing is an indispensable practice in UX because it provides real-world data on how users interact with your product. And remember that you're testing the product, not the user. You want to understand to what extent your product helps users reach their goals. 

Why we conduct usability testing:

1. To learn how well a product or service actually helps users complete specified tasks and how long it takes to finish them. 

2. To understand your users’ goals and motivations. By observing them as they go about a task, you learn why they do what they do and can probe further into the problems you see them facing.

3. To diagnose issues with an interface and figure out the changes needed to increase efficiency. 

4. To learn how satisfied users are with a product or service, which is crucial to the overall success and longevity of your product.

5. To help designers, product managers, developers, and other stakeholders build empathy for users. 

6. To provide a clear idea of how to make the best functional designs for users.

This means that your study participants are "co-creators" of the design outcome. It puts less pressure on you as a designer to come up with the perfect answer. 

There's a saying to live by, "test early, test often." Testing early in your process allows you to get ahead because you'll quickly learn what's not working and iterate while your designs are still low- to mid-fidelity. 

Have you ever heard of Cunningham's Law? It states, "The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it's to post the wrong answer." The same thing applies to your designs. If someone sees your design as wrong when interacting with it, they'll point it out. You'll likely hear the same issue being pointed out by more than one participant. This is great because it tells you exactly what you need to change. 

Recruit participants who truly represent your users. If your participants aren't representative of your users, your testing results won't be valuable. Worse still, they could steer you in the wrong direction. Usually, you need about six participants to identify most of the usability issues in your designs.  

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Back to library
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