Usability test - DIY
7 mins read

Ok this is going to be a big wall of text.

I decided to write this post as I have read a lot about usability testing but I have conducted very few tests, so things are a bit fuzzy in my head. Of course, in our everyday life we test usability: we watch people using their mobile phones, we watch them using our website or other people’s sites. This post, except being written from a theoritical standpoint, it is a very short summary of two books: “Rocket surgery made easy” by Steve Krug, and “Observing the user experience”, by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky and Andrea Moed. Also, if you have read the A List Apart’s great blog post about usability testing, you will notice many similarities.

During a usability test, you watch people use what you or your team have built. The usability test will tell you whether your audience can use what you have made. It helps identify problems people have with a specific interface and reveals difficult-to-complete tasks.

Why do we need to test?

It may not seem to make sense that just giving people something to do and watching them do it can reveal serious usability problems, but there are reasons why it works:

  • It works because all sites have problems. And they are often significant problems that seriously frustrate you or even keep you from doing what you set to do.
  • It works because most of the serious problems tend to be easy to find. The usability problems on your site may not be obvious to you, because you know how it works. Most of your users, on the other hand, don’t, and that makes all the difference.
  • It works because watching users makes you a better designer. Watching users makes you smarter about how people use things and how things can be designed for use.

What do you test and when do you test it?

People tend to think that you can’t start testing until you have something that actually works. But, if there is something that usability professionals agree on, it’s that you want to start testing as soon as possible. As they also know that it’s far easier and less costly in the long run if you can fix usability problems easily, before you have started building out the site with the problems embedded in it. So, always, start earlier than you think it makes sense.

What can you test?

  • You can test your existing site. You ‘ll learn a lot about what you ‘re currently doing wrong so you ‘ll know what to avoid as you redesign.
  • Test other people’s sites. They may belong to your competitors or they may just be sites that have the same kind of content or the same kinds of users as you.
  • Test the sketch on the napkin. You ‘ll learn whether your concept is easy to understand - whether people “get it”.

Define the audience

You are making something for some reason. You have decided that some people in the world can make their lives better with your idea. Regardless, you are making something that you feel a specific group of people will find valuable. So the first thing you should do in a usability test is to figure out whom the site is for. What describes the people who you expect will use it most often?

Get the right people

Now, find some people who fit the profile you created for your audience. The fastest way to get such people is through the people you already know. If you ‘re in a large company, this could be your co-workers from departments that have nothing to do with your product. If you ‘re in a small company, this can be your friends and family. It can be people from the office down the hall or people off the street. As long as they ‘re somewhat like the people you expect to visit your site, it can be anybody who is unfamiliar with the product and unbiased toward it.

If you’re testing a web conferencing service, you want people who hold remote meetings. If you’re testing a hotel reservation process on a web site, you want people who do their own bookings. If you want to test a kiosk for checking people into and out of education programs, you want people who are attending those programs. Make sense? Don’t make recruiting harder than it has to be.

Create tasks

Write down the five most important functions of the site. Make a list, describing each function with a sentence or two. Describe a situation where someone would perform that function, written from his/her perspective. If “Find specific items by specifications” is one of the functions, a task for it would be the following: “You decided that you want to buy a black case for a 13-inch laptop. Starting from the homepage of, find a black case for a 13-inch laptop.”

Finally, print your scenarios in two formats: one for participants and one for you and the observers.

What do you need to have

For the test, you need a quiet space with a table and two chairs. Here’s what you need to have in the room:

  1. a computer with Internet access, screen recording software and screen sharing software
  2. a monitor and a keyboard
  3. a “plain vanilla” mouse
  4. a microphone
  5. a speakerphone

It is very important that the participants feel comfortable with your equipment. Don’t make the participant use an exotic trackball, a laptop touchpad or a computer with dual monitor. Turn off any software that might interrupt the test, as e-mail notifications, and reset everything. Clear the browsing history in your browser and open a “neutral” page like Google.

The session

You begin each session by explaining to the participant what you are going to do. You make clear that you are testing the site and not him/her and that he/she can’t do anything wrong. You explain that you are interested in how people do when they don’t have someone sitting next to them, so, you will answer in the end any questions that he/she may have.

It is important that you ask them to talk about themselves so that you have a pretty clear idea of what they do for a living and how much comfortable they are, using the web.

Next step: the tasks. At the beginning of each task, give the participant a copy and read it aloud. Once they start the task try not to interrupt them more than necessary. Basically, just keep them talking and stay neutral. While the participant is doing the tasks, you ‘ll notice things that you are going to ask the participant at the end. You can always ask for minor clarifications, but for anything deeper, wait until the end of the session.

At the end of each session, be sure to take a step back with the participant and ask, “How would that go?”. Before you ask your own questions, call the observers and ask them if there is something they would like to ask. You may also want to follow up on any suggestions the participant made about your website. Thank the participant, compensate him or her, and say good-bye.

What to do next?

After each session, list the most serious usability problems you noticed and, in case there are observers, ask from them their list. Run a debriefing meeting during which you review the list of problems you wrote down and choose the three you think are the most serious. Focus only on the most serious problems. Working down the list, have the team discuss briefly how each problem can be fixed within the next month. Try to keep the proposed fixes as simple as possible.

When fixing problems, try to do the least you can do. Do the smallest, simplest change you can make that’s likely to keep people from having the problem you observed. The simplest change you can make that you think might solve the observed problem for most people. If it doesn’t seem to work, try a stronger version of the same change. Keep trying until either it feels done or it’s clear that it’s not going to work. If the first change didn’t work, consider trying another one before turning to redesign.