In professional web design circles, usability testing has become an essential component of any major project. Similar to focus groups in brand development and product launches, usability testing offers a rare opportunity to receive feedback from the very people the website is aimed at – before it’s too late to do anything about it.
But how can you get the most from these usability testing sessions? Here are 9 simple, yet powerful guidelines you can follow today.
1. Choosing Your Subjects
As with any market research project, the results will only be as good as the people you test. Do not test people from your own company, or friends and family. Go to a market research firm or temp agency and ask them to source participants of a certain profile. Make sure the market research firm does not provide the name of the company or any other details that will cloud the judgement of the participants. This prevents the results from being biased.
2. Setting Usability Goals
Before carrying out the usability testing, it’s essential to ask, what are your usability goals for your subject. Do you want users to save time in their work once they are familiar with the website? Or do you want users to familiarize themselves with the website easily? Define the usability goals you are testing for before the session. More examples of usability goals are shown in the table below.
3. Meeting the Participants
As with everything in life, first impressions are vital. Each participant must be put at ease. Remember, the usability testing session is often an extremely artificial environment and, for the most beneficial and informative results, we want to create an environment where they can behave as if they were using the site at home or work.
Provide clear instructions on how to get to the usability testing location, and if necessary meet the participants at local stations. Do not use terms such as usability testing or market research, as these can confuse and put people on edge. Also, ensure that participants know how long the usability testing will take, and the type of tasks they will be expected to perform.
After the initial greeting and welcoming drinks, there are always legal forms that must be signed. It’s essential that these are written in plain English, and are as short as possible. The last thing any nervous usability testing subject wants is to be given a contract that looks like they’re signing their soul away. All you want is for them to be reassured that the tests are completely confidential, and for permission to use the data generated during the test as part of our results. So tell them that.
4. Beginning the Usability Testing
Before diving into key tasks, get the user familiar with the environment. Tell them the website’s name and URL, and ask them for initial feedback on what they would expect from the site or what they would like the site to be. Make note of any terms or phrases they use – this not only demonstrates you are taking their feedback seriously, but may provide useful tips as to possible labels for key functionality or navigation.
Next, let them look at the website they are testing. Gauge their first impressions before allowing them to familiarise themselves with the site further.
These simple tasks will help convince the participant that the usability testing will not be difficult and, perhaps most importantly, that they’re not the ones being tested.
5. Identifying User Tasks
Identify the tasks that are essential to the new site’s success, such as:
Purchase of products
Payment of bills
Contacting the client
Making a reservation
The picture below shows you examples of user tasks for a library website.
Remember, you’re not looking for an ego massage. The site was built for a reason – can your target audience do what you need them to do?
It’s also a good idea to ask the participants to suggest tasks. While this gives another indication of their expectations and requirements, it may suggest new functionality or priorities.
6. Wording the User Tasks
People tend to perform more naturally if you provide them with scenarios rather than instructions. Rather than simply ordering participants to “do X”, it’s better to situate the request within a short scenario that sets the stage for the action and provides a bit of explanation and context for why the user is “doing X.”
For example, a task scenario could be:
You’re planning a vacation to Japan, June 6 − June 18. You need to buy both airfare and hotel. Go to the Japan Airlines site and Singapore Airlines site and see who has the best deals.
By providing context, participants are engaged and pretend to perform the business or personal tasks as if they were at home or in the office.
7. Presenting Tasks
Only give participants one task at a time. More than this may intimidate them, or alter their approach to the test.
If the user is required to use inputs from outside the test (e.g. a phone message giving them a verification code to a transaction), give them these inputs in the form they will be presented. So that they can provide useful feedback on all elements of the process, rather than simply the site.
8. During the Usability Testing
Remember that it’s the website that is being tested, not you or the subject. Any feedback you get is valuable – make sure the participant knows this. If they can’t do something, reassure them that it’s not their fault.
You must stay quiet and out of sight during the test. You must not alter the test results by providing clues, suggesting directions or by reacting to things they say or do. All feedback you give must be neutral. Do not start shaking your head or huffing, however tempting it might be!
The only time you should speak is to help the participant give an opinion, or to clarify a response. If in doubt, shut up!
Given the investment made in the project, clients often find it difficult to be quiet during tests. If your client wants to be present, put them in another room with an audio/video link.
9. After the Usability Testing
After all the tasks have been completed, you should gather all the information that you can. Asking for overall impressions of the site will allow you to judge whether expectations have been met, and whether the participant’s view of the client or site has changed during the process.
Always ask for suggestions – this not only demonstrates the value you place on their thoughts, but may provide insights into how the site can better support the user.
Finally, ask the participant what they remember about the site structure and functions of the site. Clear recollection will confirm that the site is structured logically and help identify any labelling issues you may have missed.
With these guidelines for designing and making the most of usability testing sessions, you can implement a usability testing session for your website today.