Everything we make has an impact on people’s lives. As designers, we’re not just building things – we’re influencing what people do, what people think and how they feel. And the more people you watch using your stuff, the better you’ll become at understanding how these people think and why they do what they are doing. Usability testing makes you an expert in understanding human behavior and that will make you a better designer.

Why almost no one is testing

When we’re talking about the importance of usability testing, almost everyone agrees at the spot, that testing is important. But have you ever organized a usability study? It’s a pain in the ass! You have to write your test scenario, call people, schedule test sessions, and decide how to pay your participants for their time. Of course, then people get sick or don’t show up for any other reason.

And that’s just the coordination part. Not to mention the moderation, evaluation, and presentation part, usually involved in usability testing. It’s everything but effortless. That’s why almost no one is testing at all and testing designs with users still is a major challenge for companies.

Why you should run your own usability tests

Because the more you test, the better your designs will become. Let me explain this quickly:

By running your own usability tests, you remove yourself from the center of your attention and focus on other people instead. And that’s good, because other people are usually the ones you are designing for.

When designers start observing real people, they get into a feedback loop, which helps them direct their creative & design processes towards a truly user-centric approach. As it turns out, usability testing is not just about fixing problems, it can really drive your creativity, and taken together with your experience as a designer, inform your judgement.

Let me now show you how to do it:

Step 1: Come up with a list of tasks

The first thing is to write down a list of all important tasks people need to be able to do with your design. If you’re designing a website and people come to your site to buy something, you should have a task that asks testers to purchase a product. If you want people to create an account, you just ask them to sign up to your site. And so on …

For example, Facebook’s actions would be:

  • Scroll through new posts
  • Update your status
  • Send a private message
  • Upload a photo
  • Add a friend
  • Change your password

Now try to do it yourself. Think about all the important things people do with your design and write down a short list of tasks.

Don’t waste your time on details, just get down your list. We’ll deal with the rest in the next steps.

Step 2: Prioritize tasks and decide which to test

When you have your list, it’s time to prioritize all items by giving points from 1 to 3 based on how frequently the tasks are performed.

Add:

3 points to tasks that most users will do most of the time,

2 points if they do it occasionally,

1 point if they only perform this task every once in awhile

So, here’s our list for Facebook, prioritized:

  • Scroll through new posts: 3 points
  • Update your status: 2 points
  • Send a private message: 1 point
  • Upload a photo: 2 points
  • Add a friend: 1 point
  • Change your password: 1 point

Don’t spend too much time on this ranking; just make sure you find the tasks most people do most of the time.

Why? Because you can’t test everything at once. And if you focus your first tests on finding and fixing problems of the most important parts, you will get the highest return on investment.

Alright, here are our 3 most important tasks again:

  1. Scroll through new posts
  2. Update your status
  3. Upload a photo

Again, usability testing is about quick results and acting on them immediately. Just select the 3 most important tasks and get going. You can test the rest later.

Step 3: Turn your tasks into scenarios

Now it’s time to turn your tasks into a scenario that your users can read, understand, and follow. Pro Tip: As long as you get your scenario right, your testing will always work.

Here’s a short list of rules to write useful task scenarios:

Don’t give clues in the scenario

You have to phrase your scenario so that it’s clear and easy to understand, but you have to do it without using uncommon or unique words that appear on the screen. Otherwise you turn your test into a simple word-finding game.

Make your scenario easy to follow

Write the way you talk and avoid scientific or academic language whenever you can. Pre-test your scenarios with friends and colleagues and make sure they are easy to understand and people can follow them without any confusion.

Trim any detail that doesn’t contribute

Your scenario provides your users with context (“You are …”, “You want to …”) and gives them all necessary details (e.g. username and password for the test). Everything else is unnecessary and you should keep your scenarios as short as possible.

So let’s try this with our 3 example tasks:

Task 1: Scroll through new posts

We can’t just tell users to “scroll through new posts” without any motivation or goal. Instead of describing what to do, we can provide people with a reason to do it.

Bad: Scroll through the page to look at new posts.
This will only get your users to perform the task like a robot. Without any motivation whatsoever, they will just scroll through your page and you won’t learn anything about how to improve your usability.

Okay: Look at this page and find out what it’s all about.
This is at least open and lets people explore the page more naturally. Just by telling them to look at the page, your chances are high that they will be scrolling through the posts to find out what it’s all about.

Good: Imagine this is the first time you’re checking Facebook today. Now go and find the first post that was published today.
Finally, this works because it gives your users a real goal. Instead of just telling them what to do (bad) or hoping they will do it (okay), you can give them something specific to do that will naturally motivate them to use your site (good).

Task 2: Update your status

For the next task you need to motivate people to enter actual data (not just scroll through). Let’s look at different ways of doing it:

Bad: Write a status update and post it to your profile page.
This gives too many clues on how to use the site. People will simply look for the words “status update” and maybe a button labeled “post to profile page”. And again, the scenario doesn’t offer any motivation or reason why you would want to update your status.

Okay: Let your friends know what you’re doing by updating your status.
This explains why someone would want to update his or her status update. But it’s still not as good as it could be. And the fact that “updating your status” is still there makes it a simple word-finding game again.

Good: Find a way to let your friends know what you’re doing and tell them you’re currently testing a website.
This works because it avoids any clues about how to use the interface. Again, it gives users a specific goal (find a way to let your friends know …) and even supplies them with information they can use. This helps reduce the mental effort often caused by thinking about what kind of data you’re supposed to fill in during a test.

Task 3: Upload a photo

This one’s a bit tricky, because we definitely want to avoid the words “upload” and “photo” (because they are on the screen) and yet we have to somehow tell our testers to upload photos …

Bad: Find a way to upload a photo.
This is too obvious to even talk about it …

Okay: Find a way to share some pictures with your friends.
This one is actually pretty good. The motivation part is still somehow missing, but the idea of sharing pictures with friends is a nice way of framing the action of uploading pictures to make sense to most people.

Good: Last night you were at a party and took some funny pictures and now you’re looking for a way to share them so your friends can see them as well.
This provides all the necessary context to understand the situation and the goal you’re trying to achieve as a user.

Notice how every detail makes sense and contributes to the overall understanding. Like the fact that the pictures are funny, which will cause some users to take extra care of privacy settings (the word “funny” in the context of partying with friends is not necessarily something most of us want to be public).

Step 4: Combine all 3 scenarios

OK! We just turned our most important tasks into scenarios and now it’s time to combine them:

TASK 1 — Imagine this is the first time you’re checking Facebook today. Now go and find the first post that was published today.

TASK 2 — Find a way to let your friends know what you’re doing and tell them you’re currently testing a website.

TASK 3 — Last night you were at a party and took some funny pictures and now you’re looking for a way to share them so your friends can see them as well.

Well, that was easy. Now all you need is to start testing. But first read on and learn how to do it:

Step 5: Start user testing

Unsurprisingly, you’ll need 2 things to run a user test: a design and a user who tests the product for you. As stated before, finding and recruiting the right users for your test really is a big problem for many companies. But let’s just have a look what a usability expert like Steve Krug has to say about this issue:

“The best-kept secret of usability testing is the extent to which it doesn’t much matter who you test. For most sites, all you really need are people who have used the Web enough to know the basics.” – Steve Krug, Author of Don’t make me think! and Rocket Surgery made easy.

As soon as you understand that not only users chosen from your exact target audience will deliver valuable feedback, things get a lot easier.

Demographic factors like gender may be important segmentation variables for marketers, but they have very little impact on the way someone actually uses a product. This means that it will not make much difference if you don’t test with your exact target audience and basically pick anyone available.

If you want to save a lot of time, you can also use remote usability tools like Userbrain, which offer their own pool of testers, recruit participants for you, let them take the tests on their own devices and send you videos of the recordings. Compared to traditional, in-person usability testing, conducting online usability testing has several advantages:

  • You won’t need to moderate. Moderating usability tests is a skill that requires a lot of knowledge, practice, and experience. In online usability testing, you’ll prepare tasks and questions, click a button, and then participants will get everything you’ve prepared for them, do it, click a button, and then you’ll get all the data.
  • Significantly reduced hassle of finding participants. Finding people who qualify, are willing, and available to participate in a usability test is a tedious, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive task. Online usability testing can save you a lot of these efforts and sometimes even do all of it for you.
  • Access to broader audiences. While in-person usability testing limits you to invite research participants from the area where the test is being held, online usability testing does not have that limitation. Participants can come from anywhere. In many cases, this flexibility will be a huge advantage for you because participants will represent a more diverse audience.

Setting up a usability test with Userbrain is easy as pie and can be done in 5 minutes or less:

  1. Create an account
  2. Enter the URL you want you testers to start with (usually a link to your homepage)
  3. Copy and paste your task scenario you ended up in step 4
  4. Wait, relax and drink a latte (or whatever hipster drink you prefer)
  5. Watch videos of real people using your design for the very first time
Usability Testing - Setting up your first usability test with Userbrain is easy, fast and cheap
Setting up your first usability test with Userbrain is easy, fast and cheap

Step 6: Get insights and fix problems

The most obvious way of capturing your findings is to simply list the top 3 usability problems identified in the tests. Let’s give this a try with this user test of Brayola, a website for buying bras. If you’re interested in all the details of this study, read the full UX teardown.

After about a minute of exploring the homepage, our user starts looking for a sports bra:

Usability Testing: Brayola.com - A man shopping for a bra
UX Teardown: Brayola.com – A man shopping for a bra

It’s obvious that he had expected some way of filtering the bras, or at least some categories to find the ones he’s looking for. If you follow his mouse movements, you can see where he expects to find the filters.

If many testers go to the same place to look for something, that’s usually a good place to put it because you see people intuitively going there. A user experience should always be intuitive. That’s good usability.

At this point his experience starts suffering a bit from the lack of possibilities to narrow down the products. Suggestion for improvement? Provide filter options to all users. We ran this study almost a year ago and if you have a look at the current website of Brayola, you can spot a major design change:

Usability Testing - There now is a very prominent filter bar above all the listed products.
There now is a very prominent filter bar above all the listed products. Good job, Brayola.

As you see, there’s no need to write down everything you find. Major problems will be obvious and you don’t need to have an PHD in usability testing to find them. Testing your own designs is about finding and fixing the most severe problems and fixing them quickly, not agonizing over every possible obstacle a user might encounter.

And if you want to learn more how to discover usability problems, watch this example video of Steve Krug explaining his approach.

Tweak, don’t redesign

After you’ve done some usability testing and start thinking about how to solve a problem, it’s always tempting to make changes that go beyond the problems you actually observed. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself at a point where you want to redesign whole parts of your design.

This bias towards redesigning has many reasons, and it’s easy to understand why many people like to start over to get it right this time instead of just implementing a quick fix. We’re guilty of this ourselves, but hopefully this list (from Steve Krug) helps us remember why it’s better to tweak than to redesign:

  • Tweaks cost less.
  • Tweaks require less work.
  • Small changes can be made sooner.
  • Small changes are more likely to actually happen.
  • Most people don’t like change, so a redesign annoys them.
  • Tweaks don’t ruin lives, break up families, and wreck careers.
  • A redesign means involving a lot of people in a lot of meetings. Enough said.
  • A redesign means making a lot of changes at once, with the attendant complexities and risks.
  • If you make larger changes, you’re more likely to break other things that are working fine in the process.

If you’re still not convinced about quick fixes and how they are better than whole redesigns, continue with the next (and final) step of usability testing. Everything will make sense to you afterwards…

Instead of spending your time and money on elaborate usability studies to inform a big redesign, you can just implement quick fixes.

The trick is to keep testing to make sure your solutions work.

Make usability testing a part of your design workflow

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 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.

Remote usability testing is so fast, easy and cheap, it’s effective as hell, and there’s no excuse not to do it. Think of it like of a workout – it’s not about spending 12 hours in a gym using every exercise machine you can find, but it’s much more about getting into the routine of doing little workouts (even if it’s just taking the stairs instead of using the elevator) and continue doing them on a regular basis.

So this is the kind of regular testing schedule I would suggest – spending 20 minutes per week watching people outside your own four walls getting in touch with your design for the very first time.

Usability Testing - Spending 20 minutes per week watching people outside your own four walls

This weekly exposure to user feedback offers a few benefits:

  • You can spot problems much faster and therefore move quicker through your design circles.
  • Instead of waiting 5 weeks for new results to get in, you’ll have new user feedback every week.
  • It’s much easier to convince people to free up just 20min than 2 hours at a stretch.
  • Watching usability tests every week can easily allow team members to get into the habit of doing so and builds up a shared understanding of your users’ behavior.

If you’re looking for an easy way to get this weekly dose of user exposure, create a Userbrain account and start getting user feedback within a few hours.

Final tip: Observe more than just your own design

Don’t just observe people using your own product or service. You can learn a lot from other people who are trying to solve the same problems as you are, and you can then compare strengths and weaknesses of your design to those of your competitors.

“The way to learn is simple: watch what users do. Preferably with as many diverse user interfaces as possible: not just your own design, but the competitors’ designs as well.” – Jacob Nielsen

There are many great ways of testing competitors’ designs with remote usability testing.

Conclusion

The best way of designing a useful and fulfilling product or service for your customers is building it with the help of their feedback. Watching what users do and learning WHY they do it – on an ongoing basis – builds up empathy and let’s you act on your insights very quickly.

You will ultimately be able to design better products just by watching other people using them.

Full disclosure: This article is sponsored by Userbrain.