Usability testing can be a vital part of any digital product development cycle. You and your team have spent significant amounts of time and effort to build something you hope will achieve the goals you’ve outlined. Tests are often designed to garner feedback on specific features through a set list of tasks and sessions and will typically be between 30 minutes to 1 hour long. Each session will usually require two people: A facilitator to direct the session and a note-taker to observe. Logistically this may seem a bit imposing at first but when it all comes together it can be the difference between a product that gets widely adopted and a failed project that no one uses.
Increasingly organizations are starting to embrace this reality. In a modern corporate context different arms of the company are responsible for ensuring various business requirements are met. Teams working directly in development often “own” the usability requirements and as such we are seeing more individuals being thrust into leading usability testing sessions without much prior exposure. These individuals might be product managers, project managers, or business analysts. Sitting down with a stranger and asking them to perform some tasks using your product might seem daunting at first. Over the years, a wide range of tools and valuable methodologies has made user testing accessible to beginners. But before jumping in, there are some things you will want to be mindful of.
First off, it is always vital to have a clear set of objectives going in. It can be common for an organization to fall in love with the idea of testing without really grasping why they are going through the process. Strong objectives will focus your planning efforts and ensure you obtain data that is both useful and immediately actionable. Secondly, there are a host of common pitfalls that will throw off your results if you are not careful to avoid them. Through my previous experiences in usability testing I have narrowed down a few key points to help you avoid these pitfalls and guarantee your results are the best they can be. Let’s explore some of these points together.
Avoid leading the participant
One of the common realities of performing testing is that time will usually go by much faster then you anticipated. And while the pressure to cover everything will make it tempting to guide the participant directly to the features you are most curious to watch them interact with, it is equally as important to make sure you are not leading the participant too much. There is a very tricky line to balance between keeping them on track and giving them too much information, but learning to skilfully balance the line will always lead to better results.
The whole purpose of a usability testing session is to understand how your users would interact with your product without outside intervention. Keep in mind, when they are at home struggling to find a certain button or link you won’t be there to help them. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable to sit quietly while a participant struggles to work their way through a website, but these moments are ultimately the most valuable because you will get a sense of what they would actually feel and do if they were using your product at home.
Make the participant feel as comfortable as possible
A big focus of these types of sessions is getting the participant to interact with your product as though you were not there. A very important part of achieving this is making the participant feel as comfortable as possible. Make sure they have some water if they need it because they will (hopefully) be talking a lot. It is also important to keep the room is as non-threatening as possible.
While there may be a lot of individuals who want to observe the session, having any more than the 2 people could be overwhelming for a participant and prevent them from answering truthfully. Take a moment and put yourself in their place. Imagine you came into a situation where you were staring at 4 people who worked on something and you had to tell them that it wasn’t great. Are you likely to tell them the truth or might you feel intimidated? There are plenty of alternatives to having people in the room, such as recording the sessions or even streaming the session out to a separate room. It is also important to be sure you don’t make your participants feel too comfortable. Avoid offering participants food or anything that might cause them to be distracted during the session. Remember they are there for a short amount of time and you need them to focus on the task at hand.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
There are a lot of moving pieces that need to fall into place in order to guarantee that a round of usability tests goes as smoothly as possible. For this reason it is important to be well organized and make sure you’ve properly prepared everything before your first session begins. We’ve got a checklist that will help you plan, conduct, and analyze your research efforts.
The following are just a few examples of some of the questions you will want to have definite answers for:
- Do you know where you’ll be doing the tests?
- Have you appropriately scheduled everything?
- Do you have the appropriate technical setup in place?
- Will the product you want to test be ready in time?
- Have all the appropriate stakeholders signed off on your test plan?
- Have you given your participants all the information that they require before arriving?
- Is there a way for those not in the room to see the sessions?
- Have you properly planned to take a break at some point in between sessions?
As previously mentioned, sessions never last as long as you want them to. Make sure you make the most of the time you have. Sorting out questions like these beforehand can go a long way towards staying on track.
Don’t forget to enjoy it!
Most people wonder after their first few sessions why they hadn’t done it sooner.
The insights you can get from a session are often incredibly eye opening for the entire team. And while you will often go into these tests with your own questions or debates you were hoping to resolve, don’t get too caught up with those things. You risk missing out on bigger picture insights and as long as you’ve smartly written your test plan you will likely get all the answers to all of these more specific questions. Often the best insights to come out of a usability test are the things you never expected to see.
Those moments are when a participant points out a crucial flaw the team never noticed because everyone has been so close to the project for so long. Those instances are why we do usability testing and once you see it for yourself you’ll wonder why you hadn’t done it sooner.