Getting the best out of a usability test

Design thinking
Getting the best out of a usability test
Digital Producer

There’s no understating the importance of a usability test for building an effective product. It’s an opportunity to better understand the users you are designing for - how they think, what their needs are and what they want from the product. It’s an invaluable exercise but one that might be daunting for some and draining for others - but it doesn’t have to be. 

Here are my best tips for getting the most out of every session:


1. Focus on the key touchpoints 

Before we even get to the test, it’s important to ensure you’ve set the best tasks. Think about what the key touchpoints are throughout the product experience and integrate that for the session. You want enough tasks to fill up a 30 - 40 minute session - enough time to get good responses while ensuring you don’t bore the participant for too long. Once you’re happy with your selection, make sure you thoroughly test these touchpoints on your product/prototype before the session. 

For structuring the tasks, it’s good to start with something basic like: ‘If you needed to contact the organisation through this website, where could you find their details?’. By starting the tasks simple, you will help ease the participant into session and build their confidence quickly.   


2. It’s a job for two (at least)

It’s a great idea to take notes during the session to look back on - and to avoid scrounging around through 40 minutes of footage. That being said - do not attempt to take notes while moderating the session with the participant. The participant deserves your full attention which they likely won’t get from you haphazardly trying to take notes after every sentence they utter. Your notes may also suffer from your divided attention and leave out the more nuanced observations. It’s a no-win scenario.  So instead, have two members of your team involved in the session: One moderator and one scribe

While the moderator fully engages with the participant, the scribe will be solely dedicated to note taking any important observations throughout the session. The result of this will ensure a more engaged participant and better quality of notes. Teamwork really does make the dream work. 


3. It’s a conversation

With the general goal for each session being to gain the participant’s insights, it’s important to understand they will only do so in a space where they feel comfortable. And so, frame the session as a conversation - not an interview. No one likes interviews or the feeling of being interrogated. By engaging with the participant in a friendly manner and as an equal, you will be helping them to feel more comfortable to speak up and be honest with you. Of course professionalism must absolutely be maintained, but don’t feel afraid to even integrate humour (appropriate humour) into the session. It will help alleviate tension and generally make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved. And as we all know, the best conversations aren’t restricted to a script, which leads us to the next big tip.


4. Don’t stick to the script 

When presenting the participant with tasks and questions, it can be tempting to stick exactly to the preparation material you’ve written. But something that is key to remember: the most value of a usability test comes from treating your participant as an individual and letting their own unique feelings lead the discussion. If they say something you don’t expect, don’t just move on to the next thing - drill deeper. Keep asking why. Why do you think that? Why is that? Not only will you engage them but you will uncover insights you could’ve only discovered with this particular participant. This is especially useful for when they aren’t saying too much and you’re looking for more detail in their answers. Listen carefully and change up the script! 


5. It’s not about you teaching them - it’s the other way around

Leaving perhaps the most important tip for last, a usability test isn’t about testing how well the participant uses your product but usable the product is for them. Don’t excessively lead them to complete tasks or explain in-depth your design choices to them. If you feel the need to do either, it suggests your product isn’t quite ready - and that’s alright! This stage is all about uncovering all the areas that need improvement. But keep in mind, as the intended audience of the product, only the opinion of the participant counts and it’s what you need to listen out for. Don’t take any critiques personally as any and all feedback means a more usable and effective product in the long run. 

Some tests may run more smoothly than others but take each one as a lesson moving forward. Good luck and happy testing!