7 Steps to Effective Usability Testing
Effective usability testing is all about smart use & spread of resources. That’s why we believe that making ongoing testing a habit will yield the best results.
“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 website usability testing 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, website 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 best practices, experiences, ideas and beliefs.
There’s hardly anything all these experts would agree on.
Well there is 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 websites, 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 Simplease we’ve done hundreds 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.
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 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 this will magically result in a great user experience. But no, it won’t.
3. Don’t do too many tests at once – it’s ineffective
One of the biggest mistakes people do with usability testing 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 a few tests every week, instead of many tests every few months.
The secret is to get into the feedback loop (test, improve, test, improve …), not to check off usability from your to-do list.
4. Bring your laptop and test your website 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, but 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) testers, 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, because you’re going to test it anyway.
The idea 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 lengthy 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 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 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 (well, that’s embarrassing).
7. Sign up for Userbrain and make website 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 website 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 very few are able to walk their talk.
With Userbrain we finally make this 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.”
In closing this article we’d like to point out that there is an infinite number of different ways of website 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.
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 website 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.