A Beginner’s Guide To Usability Testing

feat-usertestingThis week, I had the opportunity to create and analyze user testing for one of Optimum7’s clients. I say “opportunity” here because it is just that. After all, it’s not every day you get to see the reaction your design is getting from real users. Typically, it’s quite the opposite. All too often we create a site, nurture it through development, and then send it off to the marketing department to be optimized for search engines. But through user testing, designers get to have a greater part in the conversion optimization process. In this post, I’ll discuss what usability is, why it is important to test it, and how to do it effectively.

What is Usability?

Usability is the “ease and learnability of a human-made object.” It can pertain to virtually anything- tools, machines, process, video games, etc. But in this article, I will be discussing usability from a web design standpoint. Simply put, usability is not necessarily about how your site looks, but about how your users react and interact with it.

What is Usability Testing?

Usability testing is a process in which we evaluate user experience on a website. We provide them with a simple test that includes tasks that an average user would carry out. Typically, this test is recorded using video and audio, and the user is encouraged to “think out loud.”

Why Bother?

Usability testing is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it allows us to get outside of our box. Often, designers and developers work on a site so intensely for an extended period of time, that we begin to become blind to aspects of a site that a typical user might notice and dislike. User testing allows for a new pair of eyes, and a completely unbiased opinion.

In addition to fresh insight, usability testing allows us to see and experience the site as a typical user would, and to better understand what is actually important and memorable to him or her.

Another reason you should “bother” with usability testing is its influence on search engine rankings. Google has mentioned again and again how influential the user experience is to their rankings. If your site isn’t easy to use, easy to navigate, or if information is disorganized or difficult to find then it is highly likely that users will bounce off your site rather quickly. Through user testing, you can better understand if – and more importantly, why – users are bouncing from your site.

Usability Testing Tools

There are a number of tools that are great for usability testing. When testing usability, you can analyze everything from the navigation on your site to the readability of the text. The following are great usability-testing tools:


What usability tools do you use? How do they work? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Pitching Usability Testing To Clients

If you are having a hard time pitching usability testing to a client, explain the benefits of usability testing and optimization. In reality, it is highly likely that relatively inexpensive testing and changes can increase brand loyalty, sales and traffic. Remind your clients that he or she isn’t necessarily the target user. He or she may not think a site needs testing, because it is seems to be usable. Once again, this is an issue of becoming so close to a project/site that you simply cant see the errors any more.

If all else fails, be sneaky about it – well, sort of. When creating an execution schedule for a project, do not end the project with “launch date!” Instead, add a date for two weeks after the site has launched specifically for usability testing. This way, your client will have no room to argue over the extra cost because it will already be worked into the allotted budget.

Carrying Out the Testing

So now that you (and your client) are convinced that usability testing is absolutely invaluable, what’s next? Well friends, it is time to create a test. In this post, I will use a hotel website as the example, and UserTesting.com as my tool of choice.

I have chosen UserTesting.com in this case because it is arguably one of the quickest, simplest ways to gain information about a site.

The first step is to determine the number of participants for this particular test. UserTesting.com allows tests for anywhere between 1-100 users, with prices varying depending on the number of users. For this example, I will choose 3 participants. I will also choose demographics for these users. Some of the options on UserTesting.com include gender, age range, salary range, and country.

Next, I will determine whether I’d like to test the users on their personal computer or a mobile device. For this test, I will choose personal computer.

Next we will create a test for your site. This test should take a user no more than 15 minutes to complete. UserTestin.com actually provides the option to use a template test, which you can easily customize if you are pressed for time. Below is an example of the tasks that I’d ask participants to complete.

Tasks For Participants

  1. Search Google for hotel rooms. Click on a couple of Google’s search results, and explain what you’re learning.
  2. Go to [TestHotelSiteName.com] Look at this page for five seconds. Then look away and answer this one question (without peeking!): What do you remember?
  3. Staying on this page, look around and say what you think the site is about: what can you do here, what’s it for, what strikes you about it?
  4. Click an interesting page in the main menu. What do you think of this page?
  5. Click on the amenities page in the main menu. Do any of these amenities appeal to you? Do they help influence your decision to choose this hotel? Why or why not?
  6. Put yourself in the shoes of a person who searched Google for “hotel rooms” and ended up here. Think of one thing that you’d want to do on this site. Try to do that one thing.
  7. Pretend you are in a hurry! Book a room as quickly as possible using phony information. Fill out the entire page but do not complete reservation.
  8. If this wasn’t a test, would you have booked a room at this hotel? Why or why not?

Once these tasks are completed, participants are asked to complete a four-question survey, which you can customize to your needs as well. Below is an example for the questions I might ask for a hotel site.

Questions for Participants (after recording the video):

  1. If you were looking to book a hotel room, would you use this website in the future (please explain why or why not)?
  2. If you had a magic wand, how would you improve on this site?
  3. What did you like about this site?
  4. How likely are you to recommend this site to a friend or colleague (0=Not at all likely, and 10=Very Likely)? Please explain why or why not? Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?


When the users have completed the test, UserTesting.com provides a video of their test along with the written answers to the questions. While watching the video, designers have the ability to take notes directly in the dashboard. When clicked, the video automatically pauses until the note is finished. Thanks UserTesting.com! Love this functionality!


What’s even better is that when you have completed watching all videos, and taking all notes, you can easily export a single Excel spreadsheet with all recorded data. This makes the analysis phase that much more efficient.

Once I’ve exported my Excel spreadsheet, I begin to compare the notes from the three tests. Where did the users agree? Where did they disagree? From this, I create a list of suggestions for the client to review and approve.

In addition to the list of suggestions, I also include a list of the positive comments the users had about the site. What was it Mary Poppins said? Ah yes, “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I find that the suggestions list (large or small) is typically easier to digest if it is served alongside information that indicates that you are doing some things on the site well.

Completing the Changes

Once your client reviews and approves all of the suggestions, it is time to get to work. Take all feedback and execute accordingly.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Just because you’ve completed one usability test does not mean that you are finished. In fact, three users may not give you enough data to make changes. Just like anything else, the more users tested, the more concrete your data will be. However, the number of users tested will depend on your client’s budget and timeframe. Three is a good start, but there is no reason to stop there. Once you’ve completed the changes, run the same test again. Do the new users notice the changes? Are there new frustrations? Continue testing and changing until you feel comfortable that the user is getting the best possible experience out of your site.

The Takeaway

While you may be sitting there reading this and thinking, “I don’t need to test my site, I’m a professional!”

If that is your way of thinking, then this article was probably lost on you. I find that many designers and developers shy away from usability testing, since the whole point is to highlight errors or flaws in our work. For anyone who feels like this, I have this to say: we’re human, we make mistakes. But what makes us designers is the willingness to see and accept our faults, and the desire to fix them.

Are you looking for a truly great, user-approved website? Contact Optimum7 for more information on web design and usability testing.