Usability testing

Evaluate the usability of your product by testing it with your target audience.

Introduction to the guide

Usability testing is a powerful way to gain insights from real users about the usability of your website, app, or product.

In this comprehensive guide, we explore what usability testing is and how you can benefit from running usability tests early and often throughout the design process. We look at different types of usability tests and the methods you can use, and give you a step-by-step guide on how to run a usability test.

Let’s get started!

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a UX research method that focuses specifically on the usability of a product. It’s the process of testing the functionality of your website, app, or product with real people by getting them to complete a series of tasks, and observing and noting their behavior and reactions.

Usability testing is a useful way to identify design issues and measure how easily users can accomplish given tasks when using your product, so you can make improvements to your designs.

You can run usability tests at any point in the design process. In fact, the earlier the better. You can test with low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes, and testing can also continue after your product launches.

usability testing

What usability testing isn’t

It’s worth mentioning that there are several UX research methods that test user experience but don’t qualify as usability testing tools. These include:

  • A/B testing: This is a useful method to validate whether a certain approach works or resonates with your target audience, but it can’t tell you why one version is better than the other.
  • Focus groups: The goal of focus groups is to learn about people’s opinions, behaviors, and preferences about a topic or product. It’s not to test how the group uses that product.
  • Surveys: A survey doesn’t allow you to observe participants using your website or product, although they can be a useful tool when used with usability testing. 

What happens in a usability test?

During an in-person moderated usability test, a moderator asks a participant to complete a series of tasks while they observe and take notes. These tasks can be specific or more open-ended. 

Participants are representative users of the product (e.g. they already use the product or are in the target audience) and tasks are activities the participant might perform in real life when using the product.

By observing participants using the product, UX researchers, UX designers, product owners or managers, and marketers can see how easy or difficult it is to complete tasks and whether participants are enjoying the experience. Asking participants to explain their process and provide feedback also gives useful data. These insights can then identify pain points and make recommendations on how to improve the design.

What’s the difference between user testing and usability testing?

These two terms are often used interchangeably, which, let’s be honest, can be a bit confusing! So let’s take a moment to look at how the terms “user testing” and “usability testing” are often used across the UX industry.

Some define user testing as the process of validating the demand for a product or service, while usability testing is the practice of testing your designs or product with users by getting them to complete a series of tasks.

Going by these definitions, user testing would typically come before usability testing – the goal is to determine whether users need a product or service. It can also test target audiences to better understand their needs and frustrations. Usability testing can then happen at any stage of the design process to test how users use the product.

Put another way, user testing is user-focused. It asks if users want a particular product, or what product would benefit them. Usability testing is product-focused. It puts your product in the hands of users to test how it works for them.

The two methods have several shared characteristics. They both have an end goal to create a design solution that meets user needs, they both involve observing and listening to users and getting their feedback, and they both look for ways to meet user needs and address pain points.

When trying to work out which method is right for you, focus on your goals, your research questions, and the stage you need to test at. 

What are the benefits of usability testing?

Now that we understand what usability testing is (and what it isn’t), let’s look at some of the benefits you can gain by testing your designs.

  • Identify usability problems: Is your design usable and intuitive enough for users to accomplish their goals? Usability testing can reveal areas of confusion and frustration, and uncover opportunities to improve the user experience. And the earlier you identify and fix issues, the less time and cost implications you’re likely to face later down the road.
  • Validate your prototypes: Collect qualitative and quantitative data by identifying how long it takes participants to complete a task, how satisfied they are with your product, the level of effort or difficulty completing a task, and so on. Analyze and use this data to make recommendations about how to improve the design.
  • Learn about the behaviors and preferences of your users: Beyond testing functionality, usability testing is a good way to grasp the use cases of your product and understand your audience better.
  • Build empathy: Usability testing can be a good way for your team to develop empathy about the people who will use your product, and look at things from their perspective.
  • Uncover opportunities to improve: Discover opportunities to design for needs you may have overlooked.
  • Confirm your product meets user expectations: Test usability after your product launches to make sure everything works the way it should.
usability testing benefits

When should you do usability testing?

We encourage you to do usability testing iteratively throughout the design process. Start testing early and often to make informed design decisions and, ultimately, more usable designs.

Here are some tips on when to implement usability testing throughout your design process.

usability testing
  • Before you design: If you’re redesigning a section of your website or app, run a usability test with the current design to discover users’ pain points.
  • Once you have a prototype: You can start prototype testing as soon as you have initial designs in a low-fidelity prototype. This can help you get feedback early and validate your ideas. Repeat this process as your prototype develops.
  • Prior to launching your product: By now you’ll have a high-fidelity prototype, so use this time to test and evaluate your final design.
  • Regularly after your product launches: Products evolve, so it’s good practice to run tests now and then to make sure everything is still working as intended. 

What are the different types of usability tests?

There are various types of usability tests available. In this section, we’ll look at the top techniques you should know about.

Moderated vs unmoderated usability testing

Moderated and unmoderated usability testing depends on whether a facilitator interacts with the participant, or whether you run a test using a dedicated online remote testing tool, like UsabilityHub.

You can also conduct usability tests in-person or remotely. Remote tests that use screen sharing and video software are popular because they often require fewer resources to organize than in-person tests.

Of course, you can use a mix of these methods. A remote moderated usability test is like an in-person moderated test. A facilitator still interacts with the participant, they’re just in a different location. 

Remote unmoderated tests don’t have the same type of interaction. Here, the researcher creates the test with written instructions and questions, and the participant completes the tasks in their own time.

The goals of your project will likely influence the approach you choose. For example, it might make sense to test a physical product in an in-person moderated setting. If you’re testing software or a website or app, you might go with a remote unmoderated option.

Qualitative vs quantitative usability testing

Usability testing can gain both qualitative and quantitative insights. For example:

  • Qualitative data: Observe participant responses through things like reactions and changes in body language, and gauge satisfaction via responses to questions. When analyzing your results and preparing a test report, you can present this information as direct quotes and observational notes to support your recommendations.
  • Quantitative data: This includes information about the time on task, success and failure rates, and effort (e.g. the number of clicks users took to complete a task). You can present this data in a table that outlines each task, the importance of each task, the successful completion rate, and the error rate. This will help you communicate which issues need the most attention.

What are some different usability testing methods?

There are different methods you can use when conducting a usability test. Some help you uncover either attitudinal or behavioral findings. Attitudinal research is focused on what people say – what they communicate about your product. Behavioral research is focused on what people do – how they interact with your product.

Let’s look at some of these methods now.

usability testing methods

Five second tests

Five second testing allows you to measure how well a design can quickly communicate a message. It’s run by showing an image to a participant for just five seconds, after which time the participant answers questions based on their memory and impression of the design. The image you test could be a website, app, prototype, wireframe, logo, or copy – anything that needs to communicate a message.

While there are many uses for the five second test, some common themes are:

  • Do people understand the purpose of the product or service?
  • Do people feel they can trust the brand?
  • How do people feel about the usability and design of the product?

Card sorting

Card sorting is a well-established method where participants group topics into categories according to criteria that makes the most sense to them. It’s often used to help inform the information architecture of a site or app. By giving your participants labeled cards to sort, you can gain useful insights into how and why they group content in certain ways. 

This is a good technique to use early in the design process, as it can save time and money by making structural changes later on.

Tree testing

Tree testing is a useful method to follow on from card sorting, and it’s also good to use early in the design process. In tree testing, you present participants with a text version of your site structure and ask them to complete a series of tasks. The goal is to understand whether users can find what they’re looking for.

Tree testing can help you answer whether:

  • Categories and labels make sense.
  • Content is organized in a logical order.
  • People can find the information they need quickly and easily.

First click testing

You can use first click testing to measure the usability of your website or app by finding out how easy it is for participants to complete a task. For example, you might ask participants “where would you click to buy this product?”. By measuring how long they take to click through the task, you can learn how intuitive your site design is.

This is a useful way to collect data on user expectations and work out the ideal location for buttons and menu items. 

Eye tracking

During eye tracking, you can observe a user’s eye movements using a pupil-tracking device. This helps you check if users’ eyes are drawn to elements that communicate the most important information.

Eye tracking alone isn’t enough to determine usability, but it can be used in addition to other usability testing methods.

How to run a usability test

Here are some suggested steps you can follow to run a usability test.

usability testing framework

1. Plan your test

This step is pretty involved, so let’s break it down into smaller pieces.

  • Set your objectives: This is where you define what you want to test. You might work with your stakeholders to determine what these objectives are. A top tip – the more targeted your objective is, the better the outcome. For example, if you’re redesigning a banking app, you can test how easy it is for your users to navigate through the new design. 
  • Define the scope of your test: You can’t test everything, so be thoughtful about what it is you want to test. It’s worth also bearing in mind the length of your test. It should only be as long as it needs to for you to gain useful insights. You don’t want your participants to get fatigued – it’s better to run multiple separate tests than ask for too much.
  • Decide how you’ll conduct your test: Will you run your test remotely or in person? Moderated or unmoderated? What methods will you use? Once you’ve made these decisions, come up with a timeframe for when you’ll create, run, and complete your test.
  • Decide on the tasks you’ll ask participants to do: You might refer to user stories here – short statements about a feature that are written from a user’s perspective. The tasks you come up with should represent the most common goals your users will have when they interact with your product or website. Using our banking app example, this might be filling in and submitting a home loan application. Prioritize the most important tasks according to your goals and create scenarios for your participants to work through.
  • Establish your evaluation criteria: Set clear criteria to determine the success of each task. Work out what it looks like to successfully complete each task and come up with classifications to determine the priority of errors. 

Before you ask customers to take part in your usability test, you might want to run a pilot with a few people inside your organization. This can help you identify any issues ahead of time.

2. Recruit your participants

By now, you should have a good idea of who your users are as a target group. You’ll want to aim for your test participants to resemble this target group as closely as possible.

Sourcing participants is one of the more difficult steps in usability testing. You might source participants from your customer base, via social media, or through online communities, like on Slack or through forums. It’s also worth considering offering incentives, like gift cards.

If you’re using a remote testing platform like UsabilityHub, you can use a participant panel to make recruiting participants easier.

How many participants should you recruit? The Nielsen Norman Group has a useful study on the number of participants to recruit for a usability test. They suggest five as the minimum number of participants, as this helps you find almost as many usability problems as you would with many more participants.

3. Run your usability test

If you’re running a moderated test, ask participants to complete one task at a time, without your help or guidance, and observe and take notes. Ask them to think out loud and tell you how they feel as they go through the test. As they complete each task, ask for feedback – for example, were they surprised by anything, would they recommend the product to a friend, what would they change about the product, etc.

If you’re running an unmoderated test, think of creative workarounds. For example, when creating a test in UsabilityHub, you can ask participants questions during a prototype test or ask follow-up questions after a five second test or preference test.

4. Analyze your test data

As we saw above, there are two types of data you can gain from usability tests: quantitative and qualitative. 

Analyzing this data will help you discover problems, assess the importance of each usability issue, and provide design recommendations. Report the main findings with your team and share the next steps for how to improve your product, and what you’d expect to see in the next round of testing.

Frequently asked questions about usability testing

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a UX research method that focuses specifically on the usability of a product. It’s the process of testing the functionality of your website, app, or other product with real people by getting them to complete a series of tasks, and observing and noting their behavior and reactions.

What are the benefits of usability testing?

There are many benefits to usability testing, including: identifying usability problems early and throughout the design process, validating your prototypes, learning about the behaviors and preferences of your users, building empathy for your users, uncovering opportunities to improve your product you may have overlooked, and confirming that your product meets user expectations after it launches.

What’s the difference between user testing and usability testing?

Some define user testing as the process of validating the demand for a product or service, while usability testing is the practice of testing your designs or product with users by getting them to complete a series of tasks. Put another way, user testing is user-focused. It asks if users want a particular product, or what product would benefit them. Usability testing is product-focused. It puts your product in the hands of users to test how it works for them.

What are the different types of usability tests?

You can conduct usability tests in-person or remotely, and tests can also be moderated or unmoderated. You can use a mix of these methods to run your test. Usability testing can gain both qualitative and quantitative insights. We can gain qualitative data by observing participant responses and via their responses to questions. We can gain quantitative data about the time on task, success and failure rates, and effort (e.g. the number of clicks users took to complete a task). 

What are some usability testing methods?

There are several methods you can use when conducting a usability test. Some help you uncover either attitudinal or behavioral findings. Attitudinal research is focused on what people say – what they communicate about your product. Behavioral research is focused on what people do – how they interact with your product. Examples of usability testing methods include five second tests, card sorting, tree testing, first click test, and eye tracking.