What is usability testing
Best practices
15 mins read
September 9, 2023

What is Usability Testing?

Software projects don't always end up being a success. According to the annual CHAOS report by Standish Group, out of a total of 50,000 projects globally, only one out of three succeed. How do you join their ranks? Simple: invest in usability testing.

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Martin Koch
Denis Matusovskiy

Usability testing, also known as user experience(UX) testing, is an important part of any design process. It provides insights into how users connect with a product, and helps you reduce the risk of making costly mistakes. Put simply,  testing UX allows developers to make all necessary improvements before launching the product.

To do UX testing, you will need to select a small group of participants (about 5 end-users) to interact with your application. These individuals will let you know if it actually does what it is meant to do. According to an article on Measuring UX, usually, 5 users are enough to detect over 85% of usability issues. 

Why should you do UX testing?

When you bring in people to assess your new website, app, or software, you will be able to effectively determine if:

  • Your target users can properly use the product without getting confused
  • People will be able to use it to perform the tasks it was designed for
  • There are no bugs and usability issues with the software
  • There are any other issues that could affect the site or app in future.

Running usability assessments, especially when you use the best issue tracker available, will help you discover the kinks in your software before launching.

User experience software testing case studies

McDonald’s is one of the most popular brands in the world. With more than 13,000 restaurants in the USA alone, it is one of the largest fast-food chains globally. 

McDonald’s launched their app in the UK in 2015, but first, it ran usability checks to ensure that there were no problems. The assessment covered 20 cases involving the entire customer journey, as well as 225 interviews.

Usability issues detected during this process include:

  • Call-to-action buttons are not clearly visible or interactive
  • Problems communicating between the restaurant’s back office and the app
  • User experience impaired by a lack of customization

Because these issues were caught on time, McDonald’s was able to launch an app that met the UX expectations of its customers.

Types of usability testing

Much like the actual interactions with solutions, usability testing does not fall into very rigid types. You would usually pick several conditions based on requirements as well as time and resources available. Here are a few criteria to look out for.

Researcher involvement

Most modern usability tests are unmoderated, which means that the user is on their own with the solution that they are testing. They usually have a communication channel with the researcher but the feedback is not designed to be immediate. Modern analytics solutions as well as post-testing interviews are then used to analyse how participants interacted with the app. Unmoderated tests that resemble real-life usage the most, especially for freemium B2C solutions. 

On the contrary, moderated tests imply the direct involvement of the researcher in usability testing sessions. They may be asking questions, suggesting different scenarios, and even stirring users in the direction where they expect or do not expect them to complete a common task. 

Guerilla testing is a prominent mix of these two types. Users are offered to try a software product that covers a popular need, but they do not necessarily know that they are observed. Grassroot software usually brings a closer relationship between developer and user, and people coming from guerilla campaigns are open to quick feedback. This is a major advantage over unmoderated testing: a week after a testing session, you may not be getting the answers you would have gotten from the participants within a day.  

Testing facility

Usability testing originated as an in-person activity that takes place in a user experience research lab. This allows the UX specialists to quickly go from moderated to unmoderated testing and ensure full engagement of participants. Naturally, this type of testing comes with extra cost and can be prone to logistical challenges.

Remote usability testing is a more flexible approach that does not come will all the administrative and financial overhead. Users are asked to interact with software from the comfort of their homes. The remote route may be less engaging, but it also widens the potential pool of participants. This is a cheap(er) and effective way to test a solution that will be launched in several markets.

Testing scope

Perhaps the most common type of usability testing is assessment usability testing. Users go through specific scenarios and then leave marks (and are often graded themselves) on how they did. Some common criteria are:

  • How long did it take the user to complete a task?
  • How frustrating or pleasant was the path?
  • Were there any points at which the user could have gone in an entirely wrong direction?

Despite the closed structure of such testing, users are often still encouraged to provide open feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about the experience.

Explorative tests, on the other hand, lack the same organisation or even a fixed goal in mind. Users interact with the software prototype however they want and then share the feedback and ideas that came to them. Both B2B and B2C solutions benefit from explorative tests, especially if they cover not just power users but the regular user as well. The earlier you hold an explorative testing session, the more time you have to spot a great/terrible concept and implement/discard it.

Comparative usability testing invites participants to go through multiple implementations of the same feature. Both the user and the researcher can see and discuss which path worked better. Note that comparative testing may sound logical, but is often dismissed by usability testing specialists as unrealistic and inconclusive. 

UX testing techniques

Here are some of the most common usability testing methods that you can use to get an idea of the user-friendliness of your product. 

  • Guerilla testing: Also called hallway usability testing, this is a quick and informal way to gather data about how users interact with an application and to identify areas for improvement.
  • Lab usability testing: This is done in the presence of observers in a lab-like environment. The observers are there to monitor the process, observe the behaviour of the users and document results. 
  • Session recordings: This technique involves recording real actions taken by real people as they use the IT product. These recordings will help you improve your product or service. 
  • Phone interviews: This technique simply involves asking people to share their experiences using your software. You will ask a checklist of questions that will provide insight into how people actually see the product.
  • Card sorting: This method involves participants organizing topics into different groups according to a predetermined benchmark. It allows researchers to identify patterns in the way people use the application.

Usability Testing vs User Testing

The naming brings more confusion than clarity, but the difference between these types of testing is very simple to trace.

User testing assesses the need for a software product. Business analysts and market researchers look into the target audience to find a hole in vendor offerings or compare a prototype against what is already in the market. When everything aligns there, the prototype enters a feasibility assessment to see if your company has the means to build a product and make a healthy return on it.

Usability testing explores whether users of software can achieve the goals that user testing revealed as relevant and worth addressing. You already know the key needs, so it is now a matter of seeing whether key functionality (and your implementation) cover these needs. 

How to do UX testing

Here are the common steps involved in user experience testing:

  1. 1
    Planning the session: This is the stage where you determine criteria for selecting participants, the number of candidates and the tasks you will assign them.
  2. 2
    Recruiting participants: The next step is finding people who are willing to participate in the program.
  3. 3
    Designing the task(s): Once you've found some potential participants, it's time to design the tasks for your usability study. Think about what information will be most valuable for your development process and create tasks around them. 
  4. 4
    Running the session: Once you've come up with your list of tasks, it's time to start running them, based on the technique you decided on.
  5. 5
    Analysing the insights: This is where you thoroughly analyse the findings from the usability software testing sessions to derive the insights that you need to improve your design.

steps of usability testing

Example of usability test cases

Despite leaning toward user experience rather than quality assurance, a usability test case resembles what a QA specialist would make. There will still be prerequisites, set up guidelines, and test steps to go through. One major difference is gathering users to go through one test case is unfeasible. You will have to group test cases into sessions. 

Here is an example of a usability testing session for an ecommerce platform.

Objective: To evaluate the usability of an online marketplace by observing users as they complete a set of tasks related to buying and selling items on the platform.

Stages:

  1. Recruitment: Recruit a diverse group of participants who represent the target audience for the online marketplace. Participants should have experience with online marketplaces and be comfortable navigating websites and apps.
  2. Set up: Set up a computer or mobile device with the online marketplace and any necessary accounts or logins. Have the participant sign in to the marketplace and ensure that they are comfortable with the interface.
  3. Test cases: Provide the participant with a set of tasks to complete:
    1. Find an item to buy that costs between $50 and $100 and add it to your cart.
    2. Find a seller who is selling a specific type of item and contact them about purchasing it.
    3. List an item for sale and set a price, including photos and a description.
  4. Involvement: Explain to the participant that they should think aloud as they complete each task and that they should ask any questions they have.
  5. Observation: Observe the participant as they complete each task, taking note of any issues they encounter or areas where they seem confused or frustrated.
  6. Debrief: After the participant has completed the tasks, ask them to provide feedback on their experience using the online marketplace. Ask open-ended questions about what they liked and disliked, what was confusing, and what could be improved. Take notes on their feedback.
  7. Analysis: Analyse the notes and observations from the usability test to identify common issues and areas for improvement. Use this information to make changes to the online marketplace to improve its usability.

These test cases are not similar in their nature. You would host such a session to broadly test a prototype rather than individually refine buying, contacting, or item listing flows. Once you have the basics nailed, you can always invite more users to scrutinise button placements when contacting a seller or the (lack of) pricing transparency in the search view. 

Usability testing advantages

Now that we know the definition of usability testing and how it works, it is time to look at its advantages. 

  • It helps you to find problems quickly and efficiently.
  • It helps reduce development costs.
  • You’ll collect real data that will provide valuable insight into how to improve your product.
  • This is a very effective way to learn about your product and make it better.

usability testing advantages

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has taught you how to define usability testing and why you need it for your web or software product. UX and user acceptance testing are very important parts of any software project. It is the ideal way to find out if your app or website works as well as it should.

You can recruit friends and family to get honest opinions about your design, but be sure to use usability testing steps that work for your test-users.

However, the best option is to have a user friendly testing facility like aqua run your QA testing software project. This is the best way to get actionable results as you can be sure that every scenario will be covered.

Usability testing in a nice-to-use tool

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FAQ
What is meant by usability testing?

Usability testing scrutinises the user experience of a product to see if users can accomplish what they need without issues. It can be done manually by going through all the possible scenarios or automatically by imitating the inputs. 

What are the principles of usability testing?

Invite varying users, test key (if not just “happy”) paths, avoid leading questions for feedback, study behaviour over verbal responses.

Why is usability testing needed?

Usability testing is a must because it answers the most important question: can your customer make (and maintain) business with you? If your software fails usability testing, your business model will collapse too

What are UX testing benefits?

UX testing helps you improve sales and conversion by observing where purchases lag behind or outright stop happening. It can also increase customer satisfaction and retention by polishing how the software works for existing clients.

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