Ultimate Guide To Usability Testing For Beginners

A growing topic for interface designers is user experience and usability. This area of expertise defines how easy an interface is for new users, and more specifically how easily new users can complete certain tasks.

It’s always possible to gather feedback directly from friends for cheap testing. But the subject of usability testing is vast with many active components. Where should you get started?

The answer depends on your website and your visitor’s goals. I’d like to cover the core fundamentals of usability testing, how to apply them properly, and how they can affect your website’s performance.

usability testing over the shoulder

Values of Usability Testing

You may be asking why usability testing is worth the effort. There are numerous answers and they all refer back to a better experience on the website.

If your layout performs better it’ll make the user’s job a lot easier. Visitors might stay on the page longer, you may bring in more users/customers, and you give them power to use the site without any guidance.

Many developers do not have money to spend on usability testing, or they have money but simply don’t want to. This is fair if usability research wouldn’t increase the bottom line.

But it’s still possible to craft simple usability tests for metrics like load time and user conversions. You may not immediately find a solution, but you will recognize problems.

Check out this page of five usability tests. These aren’t specific tests, but more like categories of tests you can perform. Each test has three main testing methods:

  • Moderated in person – People perform tasks in a controlled environment with you(or your team) in the room to coordinate the process.
  • Moderated remote – Users from around the world perform tasks and you can watch via screen recording software.
  • Unmoderated remote – Users around the world perform tasks and data is monitored by a company. You then receive data to analyze.

A website owner crafts one of these types of usability tests based on certain values like time on page, time spent on a task, or newsletter signups.

By studying user behavior it’s easy to see where problems occur with interactivity, performance, readability, or anything else on the page.

How(And What) To Measure

The two primary types of usability metrics are trackable metrics and subjective metrics.

Trackable metrics can be averaged with numbers and percentages. For example you might count how many participants failed to complete a task, how many were lost or confused during the process, how many wrong actions were taken before the correct one, or how long it took to complete a task.

These metrics will help you gauge specific problems that you couldn’t have seen without studying user behavior. They may not offer solutions but they do pinpoint problems with data to back up the claims.

Subjective metrics come from participants and their opinions. You’ll want to ask questions and get feedback directly from people using the site.

What was challenging from their perspective? Was the site overwhelming? Fonts too small? Link text too confusing? These opinions are not easy to see when studying metrics. But if you ask enough people you’ll notice that patterns emerge, and these patterns may help you solve your problems.

For these kinds of results you’ll want to study more natural behaviors like eye tracking. Your goal for every test is to improve the user’s ability to complete a specified task(or series of tasks). What you’re measuring will change based on the problem(s) you’re trying to solve.

The very first step is to develop your objectives with research. What do you want to solve? What are you looking for? Write down some ideas and keep them handy, but try not to make any assumptions regarding how the site will fare.

wireframing sketch design prototype

With your goals set you should select a pool of participants, study their behaviors, and extrapolate the data to solve problems. Easier said than done but it’s an easy process to repeat with time.

If you’re not sure where to start then just pick a test that best suits your needs and try it out. In time you’ll get better at usability testing and will pick up more techniques.

Also check out some of these links to guide you on the right path:

Interface Learnability

This concept defines how easily a user can integrate the behavior & functionality of a new website. How easy is it for new visitors to learn how to use the website? Is the design intuitive? Is content organized in an orderly fashion?

Measuring learnability is a tricky subject but very valuable. Websites with common designs like blogs may be easier to learn than custom webapps like feed readers, invoice trackers, and CRM programs.

Learnability can be defined as one of two things:

  • Ability to learn an interface on the first try with ease
  • Ability for most visitors to learn a new interface over time time(solve new problems, understand new features, etc)

A complex platform like WordPress will take take time to learn. A beginner may struggle when first entering the WP dashboard. But WordPress has a high level of learnability so it won’t take long for new users to grow comfortable with the CMS.

wordpress dashboard ui usability

By tracking user actions on a page you’ll learn which areas prove the most difficult for new users. You can then specifically alter these areas by studying why they’re confused, or more specifically analyzing what the user is trying to do and why they can’t seem to do it.

If you’re curious about tracking metrics check out this UX Exchange post on learnability.

One powerful metric is time on task because learnability measures how quickly a new user is able to do something. If you measure this across a broad spectrum of users you’re going to find patterns. Then you can apply deductive reasoning to solve these problem areas.

Learnability is a big subject with lots of resources. Check out these related posts for more info:

Gathering User Feedback

There’s a lot to learn by simply talking with the user. Ask what they’re looking for and try to understand their concerns from the perspective of solving a common problem.

You can do basic testing with lots of tools like heat maps, VPN testing, screen recorders, and other similar usability testing resources. These allow you to study the user’s behavior to understand natural patterns that unfold.

However by asking questions and gathering real feedback it’ll be much easier to solve problems. You can ask very specific questions about why something was confusing. Was it the color? Text size? Or maybe how the text reads? These answers are best coming straight from the user.

Take a look at Usabilla if you’re interested in real feedback studies.

usabilla homepage design tracking

But if you’re going for something quicker then try a five second test. This is where you flash an image of the webpage for 5 seconds and immediately remove it. Then you ask for feedback from the user regarding what they remember about the site, first impressions of the layout, etc.

These are rarely interactive studies but they’re more powerful than you’d think. Check out this post to learn a little more and see how they can be implemented.

And if you’re just getting started read through these questions to get some higher-quality answers.

Testing is in many ways an art. It’s very much like a professional interview where you’ll only get the best answers if you dig deep and ask questions phrased in the right way.

Usability Testing Tools

You’ll find dozens of these testing tools online with many reviews, so it’s tough to know where to start. Oftentimes the best way to start is just picking a test and moving forward.

In that scenario start with UX Check for Google Chrome.

ux check chrome addon

It’s free and you can perform simple UX tests and heuristic evaluations without the need for an audience.

But if you want to expand to an audience then Usaura is a great tool. It’s completely free if you limit to 5 results, and the data comes from real user interactions.

usaura homepage design screenshot

Usaura is one of many tools that handle remote testing for you. This makes your job so much easier because you just upload your interfaces and leave the rest to the data.

And you can combine this with a tool like Feedback Army to get ten personalized reviews of your website for only $40. It’s super cheap for the amount of feedback you receive. You can ask very specific questions to make the user’s job that much easier.

Lots of designers also like the simplicity of website heatmaps which track where users move and click. Labs Media created ClickHeat which is a free project hosted on SourceForge.

clickheat heatmap design tool

This can run locally via JavaScript or externally on a web server. The goal is to help usability testers gain insights without paying for a heatmap service. But if you’re not technologically inclined then you may want to pay for a tool like Crazy Egg to save time.

But free tools are often the best resources to start with, so ClickHeat is a no-brainer if you have tight purse strings.

The same is true for Peek by UserTesting. This service gives you a five minute video of user feedback after a test period using your website.

peek user testing webapp tool

The service does have a pro option but you can get a lot from the free version. Also try looking for other free browser extensions on usability testing because devs are constantly building new tools for free.

If you’re interested in paid services here are some choices that get highly recommended by other designers & developers.

There’s so much to learn about usability testing and the best way to learn is just diving into the subject. Pick an objective and a specific test and just move forward.

If you are serious about researching then you’ll want to read websites that have great content about specific usability testing techniques. UX Movement is a great site to start.

But here are some links to get you on the right track:

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