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How Usability Testing Works (2023)



Usability testing is the process of letting users assess an aspect of your business before releasing it to all your potential customers. Allowing additional perspectives reveals issues and opportunities you might have otherwise missed. It’s a crucial step in making sure your business is creating and selling products or services that satisfy your customers. When it comes to ecommerce, for example, it’s an excellent way to ensure your website functions smoothly and for as many target users as possible. Here’s how to get started.

What is usability testing? 

Usability testing is a product development process where users evaluate a product, service, or system’s overall experience to identify areas for improvement. The goal is to ensure the final product is user-friendly, efficient, and meets customers’ needs. In ecommerce, usability testing typically applies to aspects of websites.

Usability testing creates actionable data that project managers, developers, and designers can use to improve the product or interface. This can involve revising copy and other user interface (UI) design elements, examining bottlenecks in the conversion process, or uncovering bugs and other elements that may inhibit a positive user experience. 

Let’s say you’re building an ecommerce site and want users to test the checkout flow. Website usability tests can produce quantitative data like: 

  • The percentage of users who complete a purchase 
  • Average checkout time
  • How many users encounter errors
  • Users’ ratings of how much they enjoy using the site

A usability test can also produce qualitative data like: 

  • Specific comments or questions users raised during the process
  • Recommendations users made to improve usability
  • Subjective feedback about the site’s design

These insights can be used to refine the site’s design and functionality. For example, if many test subjects fail to complete a purchase, you have reason to modify the checkout flow, such as streamlining or removing the login process. If many of the test subjects complete purchases but say it takes too long, you could examine logs to see which phases are the most time-consuming. 

How usability testing works

The process begins by identifying target users or a type of user through high-level demographics (e.g., adult males in Canada) or more specific needs (avid users of a particular product). 

Test subjects are then given a clear task (“search for and purchase a sweatshirt”) delivered uniformly across testers. Their responses, actions, and questions are collected as data. 

After users complete tasks, they’re given a set of questions. They can be both close-ended questions (e.g., “On a scale of 1–5, how easy was this task to complete?”) and open-ended questions (“What information compelled you to select the sweatshirt you purchased?”).

There are two significant variables in usability testing. The first is whether it’s a remote or in-person test: 

In-person testing

An in-person usability test is conducted in a controlled setting. In-person tests can include complex lab equipment like eye-tracking software that provides data in addition to the standard questionnaire, like how long users look at parts of the screen. This data can inform subsequent design iterations—for example, de-emphasizing distracting UI elements.

Remote testing

Remote testing is conducted with participants in different geographic locations via the internet.

The second variable is whether testing is moderated or unmoderated:

Moderated testing

Moderated usability testing features a facilitator who guides participants through tasks and questions during the test and takes notes about user processes and demeanor. 

Unmoderated testing

Unmoderated usability testing is conducted without direct supervision, with testers generally working from a video prompt or written script. 

No usability testing method is better than another; the best choice depends on your needs. Moderated and in-person tests are more expensive than unmoderated and remote tests because they involve specific spaces and more personnel, meaning these tests don’t scale as easily. However, they provide richer behavioral and qualitative data because the monitor can take more detailed notes and ask follow-up questions when necessary. 

Why conduct usability testing? 

  1. Reduce development costs
  2. Appeal to more users
  3. Build consensus among stakeholders
  4. Enhance brand reputation
  5. Fix a leaky sales funnel
  6. Squash bugs and catch minor errors

Why have a group of users work through a prototype version of your product or interface? Effective usability testing provides a host of downstream benefits because the process can do the following:

1. Reduce development costs

Usability testing helps identify product or service issues early on, saving resources on UI and design. Modifying elements on a product or website after it launches is more time-consuming than in a prototype. Changing products post launch can be riskier and requires thorough testing to maintain functionality and avoid unintended consequences.

2. Appeal to more users

Testing with users from different backgrounds, who have varied levels of technical fluency, or inconsistent motivations for using your product can challenge internal biases and ensure that your product or interface is accessible. 

3. Build consensus among stakeholders

Usability test data can be used to advocate changes to internal stakeholders. For instance, if users request more size information, their objective feedback can align stakeholders on prioritizing sizing details.

4. Enhance brand reputation

Prioritizing usability enhances the entire user experience. For instance, a well-polished website with an understandable UI can increase trust.

5. Fix a leaky sales funnel

Usability testing can identify barriers to conversions and help streamline the user journey. If users consistently leave items in their carts or don’t register for email updates, testing can provide insights as to why these usability problems occur. Data could reveal that installing an easy, one-click checkout sales process can lead more customers to convert.

6. Squash bugs and catch minor errors

Fresh sets of eyes can uncover all sorts of minor product, service, or system errors. For example, internal teams could miss typos on product pages they have worked on for too long. Similar unaddressed mistakes can negatively impact credibility and the overall user experience. Additionally, users can uncover new pathways that might unveil bugs in a product’s layout and design. 

How to conduct usability testing

  1. Define your objectives
  2. Identify your target audience
  3. Create test scenarios
  4. Recruit participants
  5. Create a usability testing script
  6. Conduct test sessions
  7. Analyze your findings
  8. Report and communicate the results
  9. Use insights to improve the user experience

You can conduct usability testing after prototypes are built, just before launch, or even after launch. All of these are viable; your best path depends on the resources available for testing and the importance placed on usability. Some companies find the process so rewarding they conduct near-continuous tests. 

Regardless, usability testing typically follows this step-by-step structure:

1. Define your objectives

Start by determining the specific goals of your usability test. For example, suppose you’re website usability testing for ecommerce specifically. In this case, you may want to evaluate how easy it is to find a specific product or go through the checkout process. 

Defining clear objectives also helps you establish evaluation criteria, like task completion rate, time on screen, time on task, and user satisfaction score. If you aim to increase conversions, task completion rate is a crucial criterion. If you’re working on an app to entertain users, user satisfaction scores might be a key metric.

2. Identify your target audience

Identify your target audience, considering age, interests, experience with similar products, and familiarity with your brand. This information helps you recruit appropriate test participants. 

3. Create test scenarios

Develop realistic scenarios that reflect typical tasks users would perform. If you’re testing your website, these tasks might include searching for a specific product, adding items to the cart, completing a purchase, or navigating through different product categories. If you’re testing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, these tasks might include updating a budget or marking a sales lead as “closed.” 

4. Recruit participants

Recruit participants who represent your target audience. You can draw these test subjects from your existing user base or through services that specialize in creating custom cohorts for projects like this. How many people do you need? Some say as little as five participants can yield sufficient insights, but the more participants, the more solid your data will be. 

5. Create a usability testing script

Outline the tasks you want representative users to perform, write instructions they’ll need, and come up with the questions you’ll ask. Be mindful of length; ideally, the test takes between 20 minutes and an hour, but the longer it is, the more likely it is that fatigue could skew results. Conduct at least one pilot test with internal stakeholders to ensure the instructions and technology work as planned. 

6. Conduct test sessions

Give participants a specific task using the product or interface being tested. In a moderated test, guide participants through the predefined scenarios while encouraging them to think aloud. Watch and take notes as users interact with the site, product, or interface. In unmoderated testing, grab some popcorn and await the results. 

7. Analyze your findings

Gather the data, which might vary significantly depending on the type of test. Uncover trends and outliers and analyze the data points to identify common patterns, strengths, and recurring usability issues. The goal is to turn findings into insights, which are more actionable.

8. Report and communicate the results

Make actionable recommendations to address the identified usability issues and enhance the user experience.

Whether you’re taking the usability evaluation back to your team, a cross-functional group, or superiors, it should summarize your objectives, research methods, findings, and recommendations for improvement. Consider creating a visual representation of the critical findings if the data is particularly complex. 

9. Use insights to improve the user experience

After stakeholders decide on the next steps, iterate on the prototype to address tester feedback. For instance, if users report not finding enough new content each time they open an app, you may recommend tweaking content workflows or design algorithms to surface more recent material. If users want more updates while waiting for an order to ship, you may recommend push notifications to inform them of progress. 

Remember, usability testing is iterative, and it’s OK to backtrack or repeat until you reach your desired metrics.

Usability testing FAQ

What is the main purpose of usability testing?

The primary purpose of usability testing is to evaluate and improve a product or system’s usability and user experience. In ecommerce, it’s typically used to test websites.

What is the difference between UAT and usability testing?

User acceptance testing (UAT) focuses on validating whether a system meets specified requirements and is ready for deployment. In contrast, usability testing assesses the ease of use and user satisfaction with the system.

Can usability testing be conducted remotely?

Yes, usability testing can be conducted remotely, allowing participants to engage with the product or system from their own physical location using tools like video conferencing, screen sharing, and remote testing platforms.

How long does a typical usability testing session last?

The duration of a typical usability testing session can vary but typically lasts between 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of the tasks and the depth of feedback required.

What’s the difference between user testing and usability testing?

User testing is a broader term that encompasses evaluating various aspects of a product or system through user feedback. In contrast, usability testing specifically focuses on assessing the ease of use and effectiveness of the user interface and interactions.



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