Conducting Usability Testing To Strengthen Your Designs

There is no better way to get feedback on the design of a product than by asking the people who will be using that product for their perceptions of the design. This process, called Usability Testing, is often overlooked by companies and designers, and dismissed as being too time consuming and expensive. However taking the time up front to perform usability tests can have a profound impact on the overall quality and effectiveness of your final design.

Usability testing involves developing a prototype of your project, either on paper or using a simple, programmed mock up on your device. Usability tests typically last between 30-60 minutes, during which test subjects try to complete specific tasks within your system while you observe their actions and listen to their self-narration of their own thought processes. The ideal number of testers is five – it has been said that 5 users should be able to identify 85% of the problems. A usability test should follow these basic steps:

  • Explain what you are doing, and ask permission
  • Introduce everyone involved, the anticipated length of the test, and the plan
  • Assure your testers that they are not the ones being tested
  • Ask for the testers to verbalize their thinking throughout the process
  • Don’t lead them – observe their actions and listen to their ideas

Usability testing has benefits for the client as well as the designer. Conducting a usability test can help the client to gain confidence in your design, and to further clarify what they are looking for in a project. Usability testing can create buy in from your client, helping them to see their vision realized early on in a draft iteration.

Usability testing should happen early and frequently within the design cycle, but one of the most important opportunities to conduct usability testing is in the paper prototyping phase of a design process. Conducting usability tests during the paper prototyping phase has many benefits:

  • This is the period when interaction is being worked out – who better to provide feedback on interaction than the users themselves
  • Paper prototypes are easy to create and even easier to revise on the fly based on feedback
  • Testers are more inclined to give feedback on a rough draft than on a highly polished, near completed design
  • Little to no time has been invested in the visual design, graphics development, or coding, therefore changes are still easy to make

Design is an iterative process, and usability tests can help strengthen each iteration in the design process. It’s important to check in with your users frequently throughout the process, and early enough that changes can easily be made to the product design.

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