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We write about how you can ensure your customers have the best user experience possible using your website or digital product.

What is the Purpose of a Usability Test?

A usability test or usability study determines how well a user can perform a task or set of tasks on a website, app, and even a smartwatch or car navigation system. Have you ever left a website because it was frustrating to use? Have you ever abandoned a purchase because the user experience was so bad? Of course you have, and so will your customers if your website or product is not user-friendly.

A usability test is not QA (quality assurance). QA is a process of checking if a piece of software or website is built according to its specifications and is behaving as it should across different browsers and devices. QA is typically performed by the team creating the software or website.

A usability test/study, on the other hand, involves the end user (your customer). It can be a quantitative measurement (the user successfully completed the task or the user performed the task in X minutes) or it can be a qualitative measurement (the user said, “I don’t understand what to do next” or “I find this step confusing”). The number of usability study participants who can successfully complete a task is critical, but you’re also really interested in their thought process along the way. It’s impossible to get information like “I don’t know what to do next…I think I might have to click this button, but I’m afraid I’ll lose all the work I’ve done so far" from your website's analytics. That user may abandon the site and will never be back. That’s a scenario usability testing seeks to avoid.

Chances are you’ve looked at the metrics of your site already. Quantitative studies (analytics, A/B testing) show what website visitors are doing, but not why they are doing it or, more importantly, what their thought process is behind what they are doing. That’s why usability tests are so critical: they give you a look inside the brains of the people visiting your site. And guess what? Their thought process, preconceptions, and world view are different from yours. And you are building this product for your users, right?

How do you conduct a usability study?

To conduct a usability study, researchers ask potential users (potential customers) to perform a set of predefined tasks given a made-up scenario. As the user performs the task, the researcher prompts them to think aloud about what they are doing and what they are thinking. The number of participants in the study depends on what you’re testing and, of course, your budget. Complex web apps (for example, an app with a portal for teachers and a portal for students) will need to create unique tasks to test with their different user groups. The usability test is typically recorded and shared with the design and development teams.

 

How do you know what to do with the results of the usability tests?

It takes a little thoughtful analysis to really get to the meat of the usability problem. Sometimes the inability to complete a task will stem from a much larger problem or misunderstanding. I know someone who always Googled the name of her bank, even though she visited the site regularly. She didn’t realize that she could easily type the bank's URL into the address bar or that she could bookmark the site for even easier access. For whatever reason, she thought the only way to get to a website was by Googling it first. Now, she wouldn’t be the core user for all sites, so consider that it’s also possible that you’ve recruited participants that are just too far removed from your target audience and they are skewing the results.

The hardest part of conducting a usability study is consolidating the findings and figuring out how to address the most pressing issues. Some usability problems can be fixed with a simple wording change and others require in-depth rethinking on how a user completes the task. Remember, usability testing is conducted to help you solve problems before they become full-fledged user experience disasters. Committing to periodic usability testing (coupled with documentation from other user research) will ensure you spend your design and development resources wisely.

Heidi Trost