10 tips for getting the most out of usability testing

Just because you can find your way around your new website doesn’t mean that other people can. This is why it is so vital to get a cross-section of your website’s target audience to road-test the site before you unveil it to the world. This process of evaluation is called ‘usability testing’ and the results of the process will be vital in determining whether your website is fit for purpose.
Usability Testing - Guillermo Esteves

Having conducted usability tests for a wide variety of businesses both large and small, I know first hand how beneficial the results can be. One of the main things I’ve learned through conducting tests is that you should never make assumptions about how website users will react to a website.

Keep this in mind and take a look at these ten tips for getting the most out of the usability test experience.

1. Choose participants carefully
It can be a waste of time to choose participants who aren’t part of your target audience. For instance, if you’ve come up with a website for pork sausages it’s a waste of time conducting usability tests involving any vegetarians! Try to get as broad a mix of people from within your target audience. I once conducted usability testing for a client who provided luxury holidays for ‘silver travellers’ who were generally above retirement age. Our usability participants were all pensioners but we ensured that we had younger and older pensioners and a good male/female mix.

When it comes to finding particpants you can social media monitoring tools like Brandwatch to identify your target audience. They can help you analyse and filter conversations on the web to find right people for your testing.

2. Make sure the testing is representative
I always think it’s a good idea to have between five and ten participants involved in the testing. Any less than five and you won’t have a clear idea of how easily a website can be used. More than ten participants will take a long time to test and probably won’t give you much more information than testing with a smaller group.

3. Be kind to participants!
It’s best to offer incentives to usability testers – money or vouchers seem to be standard practice. Once you’ve gathered the participants together try and make them feel at ease. You want to re-create the environment in which the testers access websites as much as possible. This will ensure that the results of testing are as natural as they can be. Creating a tense exam-room environment is not conducive to this. Also, be sure to reiterate that this is a test of the website, not a test to see how good they are at using websites. If people fail in a task make it clear that it’s a problem with the website and not something they’ve done wrong!

4. Be clear about how you will use the information
The practice of filming usability testing is not unknown – it helps when collecting information about the difficulty level of tests. Always ask for permission before you film.

5. Collect evidence of the results to show to clients
‘Screen Capture’ software is a useful way of collecting evidence of the results of tests. Screen Capture will show you the ‘route’ that users take when trying to complete tasks – such as finding the contact page. I use NCH screen capture software – there is other good software out there too if you’re prepared to look around.

It is also a good idea to encourage test participants to keep up an informal commentary relating to how easy they find certain tasks. The results can be recorded and are great reference points for testers to analyse later.

In Person Usability Testing - Raphael Quinet

6. Keep it short and sweet
A usability test should last no longer than about 20 minutes. Obviously, the planning which goes into organising one and collecting the results will take a lot longer.

7. Provide some detail and colour to your tasks
Instead of asking a participant to complete a generic task such as “find the contact us page”, give them a scenario instead. An example would be: “You need to ring the company urgently in order to double-check your hotel book-in time – find the telephone number.” This makes the test seem more natural and will yield truer results.

8. Grade tasks
Grade the task results in order of how easy the users found them. This can be done by using three grades: “easy, medium and difficult” then work out the ease with which individual participants complete tasks. If participants all struggle with a particular task you know that it’s time to go back to your website drawing board.

9. Remember that usability is never a waste of time
If usability testing goes well and everyone completes their tasks easily then that’s good and should give you confidence that your site is ready to go live.

If testing goes ‘badly’ and lots of participants struggle with tasks you think are easy then that’s good too –it is always sensible to delay the launch of your website in order to make vital alterations. In rare cases, it might even be that you discover that your new website should be shelved altogether if your target audience indicates a strong reluctance to use it.

10. Prepare to have your assumptions challenged!
Whatever you do, don’t just unleash your website without some usability testing. I got my Mum to test a new website once and was enlightened to learn that she struggled with some parts of the website I had assumed were user-friendly. And that’s what usability testing is all about – challenging your assumptions so that you can come up with a website where the language and functionality suits its users!

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