Learn about usability testing

6 min read

Learn about usability testing

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a research method designed to evaluate how easy something is to use by testing it with representative users. In most cases, this ‘something’ is a prototype of a website or interface.

These tests typically involve observing a participant as they work through a series of tasks involving the product being tested. It’s a good idea to bring a notetaker along too, so you can focus on asking questions. After you’ve conducted several usability tests, you can analyze your observations to identify the most common issues.

When you should do usability testing

A usability test can quickly uncover a significant amount of information about how users interact with a product, making these tests an invaluable source of insight at different stages of the design process. By getting feedback on early prototypes, you can avoid costly redesigns and pivots further down the line.

Here are the best times to run usability tests:

  • When you want to benchmark an existing experience – Test your current website to identify issues and bottlenecks to help you figure out what to focus on next.
  • During the design process – Testing basic, low-fi prototypes right through to the final product means you’re getting valuable feedback throughout the development process. The bonus of testing early (and often) is ensuring you’re on the right track, and not sinking precious design and development time into building the wrong thing.
  • When you want to learn about your competitors – Want some insight into how users perceive your competitors’ products? There’s nothing stopping you from conducting a usability test of their products. Addressing some of the major pain points in competing products could help yours to stand out.

Types of usability testing

You can run usability tests as either moderated sessions (in-person) or unmoderated (over the internet).

Moderated usability testing

In a moderated usability test you host the participant in person, either in a physical location or over the internet through live video. In-person sessions will often give you better quality data, but sometimes geography and time can be a roadblock.

Another benefit of moderated testing is that it allows you to involve others in your sessions in real-time. Bringing your team and stakeholders along to sessions as observers and notetakers is a great way to get in-buy and expose others to the research process.

Unmoderated usability testing

Unlike moderated testing, which allows for real-time communication with your users, unmoderated testing relies on participants completing tests in their own time. Typically, you’d use specialized software for this type of test and have participants make their way through a series of tasks.

It’s usually faster than moderated testing, but it won’t give you the same depth of insight. While moderated tests allow you to easily follow up with additional questions, you don’t get the same opportunity with unmoderated tests. This is a good testing option if you’re time-poor and can’t bring participants into your office or set up video calls.

What you need to run a usability test

As a general rule, you don’t need much to run a usability test. In fact, if you wanted to test a website prototype, you could get by with a laptop and a notepad and pen. Certain pieces of equipment and software can, of course, make the job much easier.

What you should have in place for a usability test depends on whether it’s moderated or unmoderated.

  • Moderated usability test – While some researchers may make use of a dedicated usability testing lab, it’s not essential. When you’re hosting participants in person, all you need is a quiet room and space to set up the equipment. Ideally, you’ll want to record their screen, but audio recordings and detailed notes will often be enough. For moderated tests over the internet, you’ll want to use video conferencing software that will allow your participants to share their screen so you can record what is happening.
  • Unmoderated usability test – If you’ve decided to run an unmoderated usability test, you need appropriate software. These tools typically allow you to upload links to your prototype or website, set up tasks, and record your participant’s screen and audio as they progress through your test.

Consider how you’re going to report your findings after the fact, and use this to guide how to capture the sessions. If you’d like to show video to your stakeholders, plan accordingly.

Questions to ask yourself before running a usability test

There’s a lot that goes into planning a usability test. Here are several questions to consider beforehand:

  • What are you testing? – Having a clear research objective is essential. It serves as a ‘north star’ for your research, and helps you to build a set of research questions that will hopefully deliver the answers you need. You may want to test the purchasing flow on your mobile app, or the support section of your website.
  • What questions do you need to ask?– Good research results require good questions. Your questions are the foundation and catalyst for your research and will help you uncover the answers you need.
  • What method will work best? – Location can often be the deciding factor in whether you conduct moderated or unmoderated testing. If you do have a choice, think about time limits and how much control you want over the session before you decide.  
  • Who are your target participants (and where will you find them)? – If you want to run a usability test, you’ll need representative users. It’s important to select the right people for the test you’re running, so think about the experience they have with your products and factors like location and profession.
  • Who should be involved in the tests? – Beyond being a means of gathering useful data, usability testing is a great way to prove the value of user research within your organization. By bringing a stakeholder into your session, they can see first-hand how your customers understand and work with your product.
  • How will you take notes? – Good notetaking is an important part of usability testing, but it can often seem like a hassle when you’re running a session. To counter this, consider asking a stakeholder or someone from another team to assume the role of notetaker. This is also a great way to show them what you do.
  • How do you plan to analyze the data and share it with others? – With your sessions all wrapped up, you can sit down and analyze your findings. Try and identify common themes – were there any issues or pain points that a majority of your test participants ran into?

How to run a usability test

If you’d like to learn how to run a usability test, from the initial research planning stages through to recruiting participants, running the sessions and reviewing the data, take a look at our Usability testing 101 guide.

Our 101 guide explains how to run a moderated usability test using Reframer, which is our qualitative research tool designed specifically to support usability testing. Reframer helps you capture observations during your testing sessions, tag them appropriately and then later analyze the results.


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