A designer’s guide to successful user testing

How to conduct usability studies to create well-designed products

June 27, 2020

6 mins

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As product designers, harnessing skills in user research is crucial to our roles (if not already a requirement sought from most companies nowadays). Being able to effectively detect users’ pain points to then devise core insights lends itself to well-designed applications. In all, learning how to conduct user testing ultimately helps in creating the best user experiences.

First, what does it mean for a design to be usable?

“It means that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to accomplish something without it being more trouble than its worth.” —Steve Krug from Don’t Make Me Think

The answer to a design problem often depends on the context. However, it can be agreed that a well-integrated design is one that fills a need and is carefully thought out, well-executed, and tested.

If a digital product lacks usability, it erodes users’ confidence in the product and ultimately the organization behind it. The unintended thought resulting from frustrated users is why enough effort wasn’t put in to make things intuitive and simple for the application they’re using.

Why should product designers learn user research?

When designing an application to be usable, a designer’s role is to get rid of the question marks.

In today’s digital world, there are many applications offering similar functionality and a range of equally attractive alternatives. There is almost zero cost for the user to switch products among the competition. Using a site or app that makes complicated actions feel effortless saves everyone energy, time, and enthusiasm.

Although some companies have dedicated user researchers, most designers should, at the bare minimum, understand fundamental principles in user testing. Knowledge of this technique exposes valuable information crucial during the design process. Also, making the effort to include user research to make a product usable naturally leads to more happier users.

What benefits are there to testing vs. not testing?

Testing reminds you that not everyone thinks the way you do or knows what you know.

Once you’ve worked on a design for weeks, you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. A lot of attributes on an application may be things you’re taking for granted and are no longer obvious.

Also, testing one user is 100% better than testing none. Even the worst test with the wrong user will show you more important things you can do to improve your site. It’s rare for a usability test to fail in producing useful results, no matter how it was conducted.

Who should participate?

Ideally, your participant should be the ones who will be using your application or product the most.

However, the truth is that recruiting individuals from your target audience isn’t as important as it seems. Serious usability flaws can be detected with almost anyone you recruit. Additionally, it’s not always a good idea to design a site so only your target audience can use it. You should be supporting users from all domains, including novices.

What does a sample user testing study look like?

It’s important to start testing as early as possible and to keep testing as you move along in your design process. A typical one-hour moderated test can be broken into multiple sections.

Introduction (5 minutes)

Start by explaining how the test will work so that participants know what to expect. Ask them if they have any questions before beginning and ask for recording permissions if you are doing so.

Background Questions (5–10 minutes)

If you’re screening individuals before conducting the usability study, you can skip this step. If not, this is a great opportunity for you to learn more about how familiar users are with your platform, your competitors, and to further understand their knowledge on relevant subject matters.

Impression Grabbing (5 minutes)

Before asking users to start interacting with your designs, it’s important to note what their first impressions of the designs are. This gives you a better idea of how easy it is to understand your application or product within users’ first seconds of seeing your project.

Tasks (20-30 minutes)

The length of this section depends on how many tasks you have defined for the user to perform. This is where you’ll typically record the most valuable and actionable items to work off of. Your job is to make sure the participant keeps thinking out loud while performing tasks and not to introduce any bias into the results.

Some examples of tasks in this section would be to create an account, retrieve a forgotten password, complete a checkout experience, etc. The tasks should be relevant to the problems you’re tackling in the designs.

Probing (5–10 minutes)

After the tasks, you can ask participants questions regarding what happened during the study. This can range from rating the difficulty of a task to asking for areas of improvement that users would like to see in future iterations.

Wrapping Up (5 minutes)

At this point, you should have have a ton of valuable information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of your design; it should be more than insightful for you to move ahead with this data. Thank the participant for their help, compensate them, and, if you’d like, ask if they would be willing to participate in future rounds of user studies.

All in all, user testing is one of my favorite parts of the design process because this is when designs gain visibility to the “outside world.” Having that additional human component to your work and seeing others interact with your work in real-time is so fulfilling.

Good luck and have fun with your own testing!