Usability Testing Tips: why (and how) go that extra mile

How to improve your usability testing. According to the survey conducted by UserZoom in 2019, 70% of CEOs consider great UX as their companies’ competitive advantage, an 18% rise since the previous year. While users’ attention span continues to shrink, the importance of well thought out UX design proves to bring higher ROI.

Usability testing repeatedly confirm its paramount importance, especially for traffic-dependent web and mobile B2C applications. This testing discipline helps find and fix problems hampering the conversion rate, verify concepts, and even get some inspiration from the target audience.

Currently, there are a plethora of UX testing methodologies but all of them concur in exploring target audience behavior with respect to the following aspects:

  • Emotional aspect. Focus on the emotional effect. Evaluating users’ feelings, in most cases through interviews.
  • Functional aspect. Focus on efficiency and value for the user. Evaluating how much time and how many steps it takes to complete a task.

Although widely acknowledged, these methodologies often limit UX testers’ capacity to spot and analyze business-critical inconsistencies and under-delivery on user expectations. Calling them business-critical here is no exaggeration: as you’ll see in the next chapter, overlooking the importance of a well-oiled UX may wreak havoc quite literally.

The following approach will definitely require more of your commitment to UX testing, hence the extra mile. However, it is also much more likely to result in stellar UX and UI, all to your audience’s satisfaction and to your business’s higher gains.

Why you can’t do without usability testing

Usability testing can avert some really nasty situations that go beyond just revenue loss. For example, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s employee sent off a real state-wide missile attack alert instead of the test one like it was supposed to be. Looking closer at this case would reveal inherent drawbacks in the alert system design that encouraged this human error.

Public sector agencies don’t necessarily recognize how critical QA services are for their operations unless something like this happens. Luckily, companies from many other domains have long embraced usability testing as a means of improving their products and raising the bar of customer service.

This brings us to the first of our usability testing tricks that can help software product owners leverage their offer and avoid hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Test early and continuously

Usability testing should become an integral part of the product development cycle. Getting a UX testing team on board from the very beginning is a sure way to avoid costly reworks further in the project. At the same time, usability test findings themselves can suggest quite a few ideas on how to create a competitive user experience that stands out.

Look beyond your target audience

There is a solid conviction that your target group’s representatives are the best reporters on the product’s usability. This can work well when all you need to do is to kill two birds with one stone—to find UX bottlenecks and to collect opinion from your target users. However, this is where usability testing and market research get a bit mixed up.

One of the most paradoxical usability testing tips that you might get is this: it is about catching and eliminating usability defects and not about understanding your target audience. It means only one thing: you don’t have to involve mainstream users to find and fix your product’s usability problems.

This leaves you with a much broader choice of your sample group for usability tests. For example, if we take a consumer electronics online shop, the elderly and teens located on the margin of the target audience would be valuable sources of insights for usability research. Their age-specific physical, sensory and cognitive abilities could uncover the trivial mistakes you would never catch with your mainstream users.

Likewise, it would make sense to engage a versatile public with diverse professional backgrounds and experiences. You can even go as far as to invite potential haters of your product. Such a counterintuitive approach can bring its own perks: you are likely to reveal unexpected UX bottlenecks and expand your audience by making the interface simpler, more logical, and accessible for everybody.

Go guerilla

It’s true that recruiting such participants can be challenging sometimes but professional usability testers will know how to go about it. One way to do this is to find the audience right out there—literally by going to shopping malls or other high-traffic venues. Ask the visitors to test your software and ask them to describe the user experience off the cuff.

This method is called guerilla usability testing and is ideal if you want to get the first-hand opinion of people who probably have never heard about either your brand or your app.

It worked for the Zara app, for example, where William Ng, an independent professional working on usability testing recommendations, took it to the retail chain’s showroom and ran guerilla tests with random passers-by. This seemingly simple procedure—a field study, in fact—brought many valuable insights about the app UX improvements.

Make it as natural as possible

The majority of literature on usability testing suggests using rather rigid contextual inquiries and fixed-form surveys of different types as the most effective testing tools. Yet, there is a huge gap between what people say and what they actually feel when they are aware of being studied. In social psychology, this phenomenon is called the Hawthorne Effect—the aspiration to improve one’s behavior when under observation.

Unnatural settings, close observation, and straightforward questions make people feel strained and inclined to give misleading answers. Moreover, they usually can’t explain their motives clearly enough.

It’s important to prioritize participants’ natural behavior and uncontrolled reactions when making any conclusions about your product’s usability. Usability research is an inherently artificial process, but it is likely to give better results when it is as close to reality as possible. The strains of usability testing can be relieved in the ways described further.

Minimize the observer effect

Hide the cameras, take as little notes as possible, and use sound recording instead of being present in the testing room. If possible, let users perform tasks alone in an isolated room with no observers whatsoever.

Launch unmoderated tests

Unmoderated tests imply that users will be going through pre-designed automated scripts. Such tests are great for collecting large samples of data and are effective when done remotely. This could be your option if you’re looking to get as many responses as possible quicker and at comparatively lower costs than in the case of moderated scenarios This would also make zero interruptions to the natural flow of users’ interaction with your product.

Conduct field studies

People feel far more comfortable working in their familiar environment and using their own devices. Observing users at their workplace or home eliminates a lot of lab-associated artificiality.

One of the branches of this approach is the ethnographic studies used to understand how users’ context, including their location and general surroundings, influences their experience with the tested product. One of the positive side-effects of such research is that you can test the waters and see whether there is a potential demand for your product in a certain location.

Ask the right questions

When you do go for moderated usability tests, it’s crucial to ask the right questions.

With moderated tests, you can benefit from UX professionals keeping track of the test course and making their expert conclusions about the subject matter. Yet, it’s important to maintain a healthy balance between invisibly guiding test participants and telling them what to do.

In this regard, the usability testing tips would be the following:

  • Keep your bias to the minimum. Asking outright leading questions, such as “Do you think the layout is cluttered?” would just instill your own opinion into test users’ perception of the product.
  • Answer users’ questions carefully. When they seem to be stuck and ask for extra guidance, the ideal response would be to ask them back about their ideas. This way you can gain valuable insights for UX improvement.
  • Understand their thought process. Even if participants’ make ‘right’ decisions, you should still ask questions about why they made such decisions.
  • Keep it neutral. It’s important to ask questions and react to users’ actions indifferently. You don’t want to influence their decisions but to receive an honest feedback.

Run more than one tracking technique

Probably, tracking users’ actions is the most reliable way of estimating whether your message hits the mark. There are quite a few options to perform it, and the usability testing advice here would be to combine these options for a more insightful research.

Click and eye tracking

Evolving from click tracking, the method is about capturing the user’s eye movement during the interaction with the website. In the course of such tracking, UX testers generate heat maps demonstrating the degree of human sight fixation on each particular object. All you need for eye tracking is just a web camera and specific software.

First-click testing

A sub-category of the click tracking method is first-click testing. It’s simple yet effective when you want to discover the first eye-catching element on a page or a screen and compare it to the one intended by the UX designers. If you pinpoint some discrepancies, this in itself would be food for thought.

Blur testing

First-click tracking goes well with blur testing. To conduct it, usability test participants are shown specially blurred images of a website or an app where colors and forms are the only visible elements. The test reveals whether such important components as CTAs are easily identifiable, making it easy to decipher if you are using appropriate colors and forms to draw users’ attention.

Five-second testing

Five seconds is the perfect timeframe to identify whether your design can quickly communicate an intended message. Show participants an image of your app or website for five seconds. Afterward, ask whether they understand what is the product all about, which elements of the page stood out to them the most, and whether they can recall the product name.

This test will help you understand whether the page design can clearly communicate all of the important information and appeal to the right audience.

Conclusion: Implement and Repeat

The final step of an effective usability testing project is always to run repetitive tests after each improvement to the UX/UI is introduced. Benchmarking UX variations against each other to track changes in user behavior and experience is necessary to validate the test findings and to track progress.
Certainly, usability testing is a complicated discipline with a number of aspects to consider. It is recommended to develop a clear plan using different testing methodologies. Although it can be quite costly, there is no doubt that continuous user testing is essential for long-term success of your product or service.


See More non-functional testing resources on EuroSTAR Huddle


About the Author


Valerie Nechay is Technology Observer at Itransition, a Denver-based custom software development provider. Using her writing powers, she's translating complex technologies into fascinating topics and shares them with the world.
Find out more about @v-nechay