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GuidesUser experience (UX)Usability testing methods 101

Usability testing methods 101

Last updated

21 March 2023

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About 76% of customers for any product or brand will switch to a competitor if they have one bad experience. Even though you may not know about this, it's crucial to look into issues related to your product and find solutions to help you retain your customers. One thing you must practice in the world of user experience (UX) to improve your customers' experience is usability testing.

This is a critical skill to master, considering that there's a lot you should do to ensure that your product users get the best experience. So, what is it exactly, and what's its process? Are there different forms of usability testing, and which method best suits you? This guide will provide detailed answers to these questions and more about usability testing.

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What is usability testing in user experience (UX)?

Usability testing is a process used to discover ways to improve a product or prototype by observing how users interact with it. This is a UX research method that helps determine the usability of a product.

So, what's usability? Usability is the degree of ease with which products, such as software, websites, or apps, can be used by people to achieve particular goals effectively and efficiently. UX researchers and sometimes designers can conduct usability testing at any stage of product development. However, it's best suited in the early phases, when you've turned your initial ideas into a solution. You should also continue these tests later, especially after your product has gone live and is an out-in-the-world product. 

Usability testing templates

Why should you conduct usability testing?

Below are some reasons you should conduct usability testing in UX design:

It helps you discern your users' needs and concerns

Usability testing can help you understand your client's needs and what would frustrate them while using your digital product. This can be pivotal in building and tuning an application that offers the best user experience.

It helps you meet user's expectation

Usability tests can help you confirm whether or not a product aligns with your users' expectations. For instance, it can help determine if a banking application should maximize its resources to flawless making and receiving of payments if it's one of the things users expect from it. 

It helps improve users' experience

When conducting usability testing, you can examine all user experience (UX) elements relating to a product's ease of use, efficiency, and utility. This helps determine if your users are motivated to explore your app further or run off to alternative ones. Consequently, you will make relevant adjustments to improve your users' experience. 

It helps uncover hidden issues

With usability testing, you can uncover anomalies you cannot detect under other conditions. For instance, you examine why users completely ignore certain crucial pages or features in your application or program. This can help you point out minor errors, such as incorrectly displayed images, broken links, or buttons that affect the functionality or convenience of the program. 

It ensures that the programs' or applications' functionality matches the business requirement

As much as an efficient UX design should meet the users' needs, it should also match the business specifications. For instance, if the business expects users to provide their emails in the first field of a subscription and their passwords in the second field, you can use usability testing to check if they fill these fields accordingly and whether you need to make any improvements. 

Core elements of usability testing

The core elements of usability testing cut across the different types of usability testing. These core elements include the facilitator, the task, and the participant. Here's a more detailed look at these elements: 

The facilitator

This is the person that leads the discussion with the research participant. The facilitator assigns the participants tasks, observes how they perform them, and asks follow-up questions to understand the mental model of the user. The facilitator is also responsible for catching high-quality, valid data without influencing the participant's behavior or response. 

The tasks

Tasks in usability testing refer to realistic activities that participants might perform through real-life use of your product. You can establish specific or open-minded tasks to meet your desired goals. Therefore, you must phrase your questions well enough to ensure the participant performs the tasks as expected. Your wording is crucial at this point. Otherwise, small errors in the phrasing of the questions can confuse the participant or affect how they perform the task. We refer to this psychological phenomenon as priming. 

You can deliver your instructions verbally or as written tasks on a sheet or screen. However, in most usability tests, facilitators prefer reading the instructions aloud to the participants and allowing them to perform them. This approach ensures that the participant has read and understood the instructions completely. It also helps researchers with note-taking since they know which task the participants perform. 

The participant

A participant is a representative product or service user taking part in a usability test. This may be someone who's already using the product in real life or someone with a similar background to the target user group but is yet to use the product.

The participant should think out loud in usability testing. We refer to this process as the "think-aloud protocol." In this process, the facilitator will ask participants to narrate their actions and thoughts while performing the task. This helps understand their goals, thoughts, motivations, and behaviors while interacting with the application. 

Parameters tested in usability testing

Usability testing seeks to test different parameters to create a high-quality app that meets the users' needs and concerns. Otherwise, UX designers will rely on their instincts, go with the flow, and miss crucial aspects that make their product effective. That's why they should monitor specific parameters such as: 

Ease of use

Ease of use is one of the most popular post-task metrics UX researchers collect. Perhaps the task took longer, but the user didn't have such an impression. Implement a Single Ease Question (SEQ) to understand how difficult or easy people find using your product on a scale from 1(very difficult) to 7 (very easy). This subjective evaluation of difficulty is short and easy to respond to. 

Efficiency

With efficiency, UX researchers check how users are coping with a product. One possible way to measure efficiency is to look at the average time all users take to complete the tasks coupled with their success score. 

Memorability

UX researchers employ usability testing to check how easily users can remember an application's operation once they have broken from interacting with it. 

Error rates

Usability testing best estimates how many errors users encounter while using an application. It can also help UX designers determine how frequently errors occur and how the users deal with them or need help. 

Satisfaction

UX researchers use usability tests to ascertain an app's appeal to its users. Assessing users' attitudes towards a program can help determine if their needs are satisfied and whether some areas need improvement. 

Content

Usability testing also ensures that all data relayed through a program or app is accurate and vital. Therefore, testers will check content pieces, such as inserted links, contact information, and site/app content. 

Categories of usability testing

There are two categories of usability testing: qualitative vs. quantitative and remote vs. in-person testing. Here's a closer look at them: 

Qualitative vs. quantitative testing

Depending on the types of data UX researchers collect, we can think of qualitative or quantitative usability testing components. 

Qualitative usability testing consists of observational data and anecdotal evidence on user perceptions, opinions, and feelings. Facilitators can identify why users would use the product in a certain way by asking follow-up questions.

On the other hand, quantitative usability testing consists of metrics that show the users' performance. Two common metrics used to collect quantitative data are time on task and task success rate.

Usability testing sessions are predominantly qualitative, with some quantitative components. They allow UX researchers to understand the gaps between what users say and do. A typical usability test should have at least five participants per user persona to uncover in-depth most of the common problems they have with your program or application. If you measure group-level behavior and collect numbers to interpret usability in absolute terms, you need a bigger sample of representative users. 

Remote vs. in-person testing

In remote usability testing, the participant takes part in usability testing remotely, using remote-testing tools. In contrast, in in-person testing, the participant undertakes the test in the presence of a facilitator. Both types of testing are effective, but the remote usability test is the most popular one since it requires less money and time than in-person tests. 

Remote testing can either be remotely moderated or remotely unmoderated. A remote moderated test works similarly to the in-person test since the facilitator usually interacts with the participants as they ask them to perform certain tasks but from different locations. Participants and facilitators usually interact using screen-sharing software like GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Skype. 

In remote unmoderated usability tests, the researcher or tester uses a dedicated online-remote test to provide written tasks for the participant. The participant then completes these tasks at their convenient time. 

Usability testing templates

Types of usability testing

There are different types of usability testing. Each option takes a different form that is suitable for different situations and objectives. Here's a detailed look at the types of usability testing: 

Guerilla testing

With guerilla testing, researchers go to public places and ask people to test a low-fidelity product. Participants randomly choose their tests, and the researcher offers small gifts in return. This is a low-cost and relatively simple test where researchers can capture real user feedback. 

This test is suitable in the early stages of product development since researchers can collect personal opinions and emotions of potential users on their concept. 

Lab usability testing

In this type of testing, researchers run the test in special environments or "laboratories" under a supervisor who obtains feedback from live users. They facilitate the test through tasks, answering questions from the participants, and replying to their feedback. 

This type of usability testing works well when seeking in-depth information on users' interactions with your product and the issues they're facing. It's also suitable for investigating the reasoning behind their behavior and collecting more qualitative information. 

Unmoderated remote usability testing

UX researchers undertake unmoderated remote usability testing remotely without a moderator. This offers robust, inexpensive, and quick results that they can use for further analysis. Test participants should complete their tasks in their environment, giving a detailed look at the natural use of the product. 

This method is suitable for obtaining large samples with critical findings from moderated research. It's also best when observing user behavior patterns and testing particular questions. 

Contextual inquiry

In this type of test, UX researchers prefer using interviews and observations to obtain information from real users in their natural environments (e.g., home, work, school, etc.). They start by interviewing the users about their experience with their product and then observe and question them while or after using it. 

This usability testing is best when researchers test information about the user's preferences, workspace, and habits. Therefore, they should use it at the beginning of the UX design process to help create a well-tailored user experience. 

Card sorting

Card sorting is excellent for testing specific features, content, and structure in a user interface. To set up this test, moderators place concepts (features, content) on cards and ask the participants to manipulate them into specific categories. Once the participants sort these cards, the moderators will ask them about the logic behind their decision to understand their reasoning.

This testing method helps create a hypothesis on organizing features or content to create a well-organized user experience. However, validating these hypotheses with another set of real users and other test methods is crucial.

Tree testing

Tree testing is a suitable follow-up when researchers have used card sorting in their usability testing. However, you can still use it on its own. In this test, you will create a visual information hierarchy or tree and ask the users to complete certain tasks using this tree.

This usability testing method is suitable for the early stages of the UX design process. Researchers can conduct it in spreadsheets or prototypes.

Session recording

Once your website or app is live, you can get product insights without needing to specifically invite people to the lab. This test method records a real user's (though anonymized) actions while they interact with your live product.

Researchers will then use the data collected from these sessions to understand what features or content the users will find more interesting and what issues they may face while interacting with the product. That's why researchers prefer using this method when focusing on the problems users experience.

5-second test

In this test, the facilitator will expose the users to a portion of the test product for five seconds and then interview them to observe the following:

  • The pages or product's purpose, elements, or main features

  • The trustworthiness of the brand or intended audience 

  • The product's design and impression of its usability 

Eye tracking

Eye tracking is a usability testing method that focuses on tracking where users are looking and for how long. This method is crucial since the researchers can determine which elements draw the user's attention and which areas need improvement.

While there may be several usability testing methods, choosing the most suitable one for your product can be challenging. That's why you should understand your goals, assess your options, and choose an option that will meet your objectives. It's also crucial to note that you should choose a testing method that aligns with your resources and objectives.

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