How to Conduct Your Own Usability Tests

Usability testing does not have to involve a lot of resources and expenses. You can conduct your own usability tests with minimal effort. Here are 7 rules to conducting usability tests.

Try the Test Yourself

Set a time limit for each testing session. Use a stopwatch to keep track of the time.

Then complete the test(s) yourself in the time allotted. Self-testing can expose many problems which you can fix before you conduct the tests with test subjects.

Ask the User a List of Prepared Questions

Here are sample questions you can ask your usability test subjects:

  • What is your first impression of the site?;
  • Where is the site identity/logo?;
  • What is the name of this site?;
  • What is this site about?;
  • What benefits do you think you will receive from this site?;
  • Where are the links (primary navigation) to the main sections of the site?;
  • Where are the utility links?;
  • How can you search this site?;
  • What are the features and content teasers or promotions?;
  • Where are the links to the most popular content?;
  • Where can you subscribe to the newsletter?;
  • Where is the registration or log-in form?;
  • Where are the advertisements (banners, buttons, & text links)?; and
  • Where are the main starting points?

Here are sample questions for pages other than the home page:

  • What is the title or name of this page?;
  • Where is the content promised by the link?;
  • Where are the local navigation links to related content?;
  • Where is the link for the home page?; and
  • Where are you in relation to the home page (Breadcrumb trail)?

Ask the User to Complete the List of Prepared Tasks

Take careful note of how easy or difficult it is for the user to complete each task. The main objective is to try to observe the user's thought process. When you're not sure what the user is thinking, ask them.

For these tasks, let's assume that you are conducting a usability test on Amazon.com, the online bookstore. Here are some sample tasks you can ask your usability test subjects to preform:

  • Find and add the last book you bought to your shopping cart;
  • Find and add xyz's latest book to your shopping cart;
  • Find and add three books on basic HTML to your shopping cart;
  • Remove "xyz's" latest book from your shopping cart;
  • Add gift wrapping to the three books on basic HTML;
  • Pay for the items in your shopping cart;
  • Subscribe to three newsletters offering recommendations about your favorite subjects;
  • Find information and sign up for our affiliate program;
  • Find information and join the Amazon Honor System; and
  • Send a complaint to our customer service department.

Encourage the User to Think Aloud

By encouraging the user to speak their thoughts, you will understand the user's thought processes better. This will tell you if your expectations meet the user's.

Before the user clicks a link or submits a form (such as a search form), ask them what they expect to find on the next page. After the click, ask them if the result is what they expected.

A word of warning!

Try not to coerce the user into telling you what you want to hear.

For example, you might ask the test subject, "Do you like the logo design?" The user is more inclined to reply, "Yes," as people usually don't like to hurt your feelings.

A less leading question could be something like, "Is there anything on the page that you particularly like?" If they answer, "Yes," follow-up with, "What in particular do you like about the page?"

If the test subject does not indicate that they like your logo, you know that it clearly hasn't impressed them in particular.

Listen Carefully to What They Have to Say

Always listen carefully to what your test subjects say out loud, and make a note of any important points.

Ask leading questions. If the user tells you they like the page, ask them what do they specifically like about it. Try to get to the specifics of what works and what doesn't work in your Web site.

Measure the Success Rate of User Tasks

Track the success rate for each task you set. Use a stopwatch to track the time and count the number of clicks the user takes to complete each task, whether successfully or not.

If you find that users use too many clicks to complete a task, you might think about modifying existing functions or adding a new one to reduce the number of clicks it takes to complete the task.

Don't Hurt Your User's Feelings

You must treat your test subjects with extreme care and understanding. You must be patient and reassuring. Test subjects are fragile beings. Be nice!

Make it clear that the user is not the one being tested. Your Web site is. Tell them that they can't do anything wrong. If they can't do something, it's because the site design is at fault, not them.

You must also try not to take it personally when users don't understand what is happening or what to do. Welcome all errors and problems discovered as constructive discoveries.

Test Report

After each usability testing session, write up a concise report of the problems discovered and any thoughts on possible solutions. You should also note down any constructive ideas that your test subjects offered.

Analyze the Results

Everyone involved in the design process should review the test report and suggest possible solutions.

Rank the list of problems and solutions in order of importance. The site designers implement each improvement in that order. You then conduct another round of usability tests to see if the improvements work.

Remember that you're not looking for a perfect solution to each problem. There is no single correct solution. Rather, you are looking for another solution to test.

This is why it is important to conduct numerous usability tests to create a site that is as user-friendly as possible.