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How to make usability testing a habit

by Stefan Rössler on March 18, 2018 –

Learn how to make usability testing a habit
Before we tell you how to make usability testing a habit, you might be interested in why we think this is important.

“Distribute your budget for user testing across many small tests instead of blowing everything on a single, elaborate study.”
– Jakob Nielsen in his famous article Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users

There is no such thing as a perfect usability test. Everyone develops his or her own ways of testing, and combines different methods and tools from other experts and practitioners. Furthermore every method has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s usefulness heavily depends on your current situation.

In this regard, usability testing is a lot like exercising. Every fitness expert will propose a slightly different method, for how to reduce your body fat (eliminate usability issues) depending on their own experiences, ideas and beliefs. There’s hardly anything, that all these experts would agree upon. Well there’s one thing…

Imagine you want to lose weight. Even if you don’t have any idea how to do it, you already know one thing for sure: one day of training will not be enough, no matter how hard you’re going to train on that day. One big effort can never substitute for all the many efforts you need to make on a regular basis, to get the results you desire. The exact same thing is true for usability testing.

If you want to create great products and services, commissioning one large usability study may seem to be a great idea, but it’s almost as ineffective to improve your website’s usability, as one day of intense training is to lose weight. The key to success is, to slowly but surely make usability testing a habit.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
– Jim Ryun

At our usability agency Simplease we’ve done thousands of usability tests for our clients and ourselves during the last 5 years. One thing we’ve learned is that starting isn’t the hard part. There are plenty of solutions out there and if you really want to start usability testing now, there is no excuse for you not to do it.

Although we agree that starting is important, we believe that sticking with what you’ve started is even more critical. Just think about how often you’ve tried a promising method, service, or tool, and remember how you stopped doing or using it before it had any positive impact on your life.

That’s exactly what happens when you are motivated enough to start, but don’t have any plans for how to stick with what you’ve started. This can be frustrating, and thus lowers your chances of succeeding at your goal in the future. Whatever your goal might be, whether it’s fixing usability issues, improving your website’s content, or validating a product idea, here’s how you can do it, by making usability testing a habit:

№1 – Accept that you’ll do almost everything wrong

When you’re new to something, it’s impossible to be really good at it. It’s easy to understand this if you imagine how you’re taking dancing lessons, and picture yourself performing your very first dance moves. Embarrassing, isn’t it?

No it isn’t. No one masters anything on day one. Even Mozart wasn’t able to produce great music in his first years of composing. It’s this stage of starting, that usually separates the wheat from the chaff, and that’s why you must not be afraid of doing something wrong, because you need to make mistakes in order to learn something new.

№ 2 – Embrace failure because you’re going to fail a lot

The premise of usability testing is that your current solution sucks. Maybe it’s not that bad, but if your solution were already perfect, there would be no need for usability testing (SPOILER: every software has usability issues just like every software has bugs).

Usability testing was developed to identify your product’s usability issues, thus the more problems you discover, the better off you actually are. This might be counterintuitive to some designers out there, but only because they are still in their beginnings, and believe that if they give their best, they will somehow produce a great user experience, but no – they won’t.

№ 3 – Don’t do too many tests at once. It’s ineffective.

One of the biggest mistakes people do with usability testing (and again exercising) is to do too much of it at once. When people are motivated, they tend to do stupid things, like running until their feet hurt, or doing so many usability tests that it takes them days to watch and analyze all the recordings.

We’ve experienced this countless times with clients and especially with our own projects, and realized that it’s way more effective to do only very few tests every week, instead of many tests every once in a while. The secret is to get into the feedback loop (test, improve, test, improve …), not to check off usability from your todo list.

№ 4 – Bring your laptop and test with friends

As designers we’re always working on something. No matter what it is, we can always test it with friends, colleagues and family members. When I meet with someone, I often bring my laptop just to show them some of my work. Actually I’m not showing or presenting it to them, instead I make up a task and ask them to use the thing I’m currently working on.

With reference to Point #1 of this list, I have to admit, that some of my tests are complete failures. Sometimes my tasks are leading (or just confusing) and many times, my prototype is not yet ready for testing. And still, I get useful results every time I test, even if it’s just about how to improve my task, or the realization that I need to build a prototype for usability testing.

№ 5 – Fix usability issues as soon as you’ve identified them

As mentioned above, the secret of usability (and design) is to get into the feedback loop. Therefore you need to improve usability issues as soon as you’ve identified them. It’s not important for your new solution to be perfect – you’re going to test it anyway.

The premise of this article is that doing usability tests on a regular basis is the best way to improve your user experience. Why? Because large usability studies tend to produce lenghty reports and other forms of artifacts that don’t directly improve the product itself. While this is very useful for scientific purposes, it’s not a suitable approach for tackling real world problems.

№ 6 – Have a regular testing schedule and stick to it

All of the above ideas are good to start with, but as you know, starting is the easy part. If you really want to make usability testing a habit, you need a schedule, and you have to absolutely commit to it. Believe us, we had to learn this lesson the hard way, when we were developing a usability testing method for one of our clients.

We were scheduling Skype meetings with potential customers to let them use our client’s marketing website, and the insights of these sessions were amazingly useful. Yet, as soon as we didn’t schedule any new meetings, we slowly but surely stopped the testing altogether – as a usability agency, well, that’s embarrassing.

20 minutes of user testing per weekThat’s why we commit to a regular testing schedule for every project now. Our standard schedule now is at least 20 minutes of user exposure (aka watching people outside your own 4 walls using your product for the very first time) every week. This could be a intense 20 minute, face to face session with a user or 2-3 remote usability tests done with our usability platform Userbrain.

№ 7 – Sign up for Userbrain and make usability testing a habit

OK. This last point is shameless self-promotion. Shameless because we really believe in it, and self-promotion because Userbrain is our service for making usability testing a habit. We’ve developed it because of all the problems described above. We’ve realized that when it comes to usability testing, a lot of people talk about it, but only a few are able to really walk their talk.

With Userbrain we finally make that possible, by continually sending our customers usability videos of real people using their websites and prototypes. They’ll get one video every week, every other day, or even daily to their email inbox.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

In closing this article, we’d like to point out that there is practically an infinite number of different ways of usability testing. As mentioned in the beginning, all of them have their strengths and weaknesses, and they all need to be considered by someone who wants to improve the usability of a product or service. That said, we want to note that this someone usually doesn’t exist in many companies.

Summing up

We give away a little secret here: as usability experts we can make a lot of money because people think they can’t do usability testing themselves. They consider it complicated and figure they need an expert to carry it out properly. Well they are right – you need an expert to make your usability testing correct. But you absolutely don’t need anyone to get the benefits of doing your own usability tests.

The best thing about making usability testing a habit is that you keep getting better at it. You will not just stick to one method in particular, but figure out new approaches, you can (and will) use in all the different scenarios. This way you can become this someone whether you use your new habit to improve your own products and services, or you’ll start to become an expert yourself, and make a living from consulting other companies.