Over the last few months I've sat through dozens of usability tests run by design agencies. Clients have asked me to oversee the tests to make sure that the agency really puts their design through its paces. This is a good thing as it shows that usability testing is now becoming a mainstream activity in the design community. But many of the usability tests I've sat through have been so poorly designed that it's difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from them. No wonder that Fast Company mistakenly believe that user centred design doesn't work.
Picture a usability test
If I ask you to picture one of these usability tests, you'll probably conjure an image of a participant behind a one-way mirror, with video cameras and screen recording software. Although your picture would be accurate, there's something missing: the hand of an experimental psychologist (or an experienced user researcher) checking that other factors are in place behind the scenes. You need this guiding hand because the technology can often obscure the key goals and principles of usability testing. If I wear a white coat and dangle a stethoscope around my neck, it doesn't make me a medic. Similarly, if I record a picture-in-picture video of someone using a web site, it doesn't mean I'm running a usability test.
Here are 4 principles of usability testing that have been absent in many of the tests I've observed.
- Screen for behaviours not demographics.
- Test the red routes.
- Focus on what people do, not what they say.
- Don't ask users to redesign the interface.
Screen for behaviours not demographics
Participants are often recruited using a demographic screener that focuses on aspects such as gender and age. To understand why this is a mistake, next time you come across a Norman Door — a door with a handle on it that screams ‘Pull!' but the architect decided to make people push it — take a seat nearby and watch a handful of people use it.
You'll find that you won't need to observe many people before you see that there's a problem with the design of the door. It won't matter if the people you observe are men or women, young or old, tall or short — virtually everyone will experience this problem. The ones that don't experience the problem have probably used the door before, and know what to expect.
This short observation tells us a lot about the criteria you should use when writing the perfect participant screener. Trying to balance gender, age and other demographic factors is not just impossible — because of the small sample sizes used in a usability test — but pointless. These factors have a negligible impact on the usability of a system (unless it's aimed exclusively at women, or seniors).
Instead, recruit users based on their behaviour: people's previous experience with the domain that you're testing. If you screen participants based on their demographic characteristics you'll end up compromising on the kinds of domain knowledge you need. You'll end up with a demographically representative, but behaviourally biassed, sample.
Test the red routes
Whatever kind of usability test you run — moderated or unmoderated, remote or lab-based — they all share one feature: participants carry out tasks with the system. There are 6 main categories of usability test task but whatever kind you choose you need to make sure they focus on the red routes — tasks that are critical both to the user and the organisation.
In contrast, a scenario like ‘Have a look around the home page and tell me what you think' — one that I've seen used more than once in recent usability tests — is one of a series of usability test tasks you should avoid. The only people who arrive at a home page, look around at the design, and pass judgement on it are other designers. Real people don't behave that way because real people have specific objectives in mind when visiting a site and it's those objectives you need to test your site against.
Focus on what people do, not what they say
Lab-based usability tests use a small number of participants: 5 is a common sample size and more than 20 is rare, except in unmoderated, remote usability tests. These small sample sizes work because usability tests focus on cognitive, problem solving behaviours and when it comes to how the brain works, people really aren't that different from each other.
Problems occur when usability testers shoehorn other research objectives into their usability tests. For example, questions like, ‘How much would you pay for this service?', ‘What kind of brand values does this site elicit?' or ‘What are your feelings about this design?' are totally meaningless when asked in the context of a usability test. You might as well ask people who they will vote for at the next election: you'll get an answer but the small sample size means it won't have any predictive value. A more subtle kind of bias occurs when you ask participants to introspect on why they did a particular behaviour. There's no point asking ‘Why?' in a usability test because people can't reliably introspect into their motivations.
Don't ask users to redesign the interface
When participants struggle with some aspect of the user interface, it's very tempting to ask them how they would like it designed. But if design was that easy, we could all go home and leave it to participants to develop the next generation of user interfaces. So, after the participant has failed to choose the appropriate button, it's frustrating to hear the moderator ask, ‘What would have made that button more obvious to you?' The inevitable answer from the participant is, ‘Make it bigger', or even that old chestnut, ‘Make it a different colour'.
Asking people to redesign things introduces solutions into a process that's designed to find problems. Just when you had them in 'problem mode', this line of questioning shifts their thinking. It tends to close down promising investigative threads and opportunities and you then risk not properly understanding the problems. Once users are shown a solution, or are asked to think of one for themselves, they get fixated on it and they struggle to think of anything else. The truth is that participants don't know what's possible, and asking them to generate design solutions will make them focus on the blindingly obvious or get them to focus on solutions that may work in one context but may not work in yours.
Conclusion: Avoid cargo cult usability testing
The physicist Richard Feynman once wrote about cargo cult science, where researchers adopt the paraphernalia of doing scientific activity but forget its core principles of empiricism, integrity and avoidance of bias. In the same way, people sometimes adopt the paraphernalia of usability testing, such as the one-way mirror and the video cameras, but forget the core principles of doing user research. Get those core principles right and you can run a great usability test with just a pencil and paper.
About the author
Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.
Corey Shulman wrote:
This article challenged me to ask the question "What is good usability testing?"
I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on finding methods to make usability testing more informative and many of the points you make are both valid, as well as appealing, but following some of these guidelines could prevent vital information from being discovered.
First, it is my belief that research and the analysis are not synonymous. As a researcher, I depend heavily on intelligent interpretation of the data. The firm I work for, User Insight, is so adamant about this that we utilize a strategist on every project. The strategist’s sole mission is to watch all of the research objectively and report patterns appropriately. The analysis acts as a “check and balance” and empowers the researcher to explore deeper.
Second, usability cannot be examined in isolation, as it is only part of the user experience. It is crucial that moderators explore not simply IF users can do it, but all of the questions surrounding it, such as “Do they want to do it?” and “How much would you pay for this service?” As you noted, questions like these are not designed to inform the future price point of the product. However, these questions reveal the user’s perceived value for the product. Learning that a user can do something is only part of the story; they might not know what they accomplished or they might not have the desire to ever do it. Some studies reveal findings outside of usability, which will inherently make an impact on the usability of the product. I have seen this many times.
I do agree with your point that user testing needs to continually strive to create a natural user experience. As pointed out earlier, untimely questions can create a flawed experience for a participant during a task-based study. However, I think it is both appropriate and valuable to have a user examine a screen after the task has been completed. I have seen first-hand how valuable this can be. Encouraging a participant to take a deeper look at a screen after completion of a task can reveal issues with terminology, layout and content which could all go unnoticed if not instigated by the researcher. Thanks again for writing and sharing this thought-provoking article!
Love it? Hate it? Join the discussion
What problems have you experienced with usability tests? Do you have any examples to share?
How to carry out a usability expert review
May 16, London: This seminar reveals the practitioner secrets behind expert reviews and will teach you how to think like a usability expert. More details
Download the best of Userfocus. For free.
100s of pages of practical advice on user experience, in handy portable form. 'Bright Ideas' eBooks.
Every month, we share an in-depth article on user experience with over 8,000 newsletter readers. Want in? Sign up now and download a free guide to usability test moderation.
User Experience Articles
Our most popular articles
Our most commented articles
Our most recent articles
- May 6: My place or yours? How to decide where to run your next usability test
- Apr 8: The usability error you don't know you're making
- Mar 4: Adapting your usability testing practise for mobile
- Feb 4: What Russian dolls and Fantastic Voyage can teach us about designing for mobile
- Jan 7: "I want to speak to my users but they don’t want to speak to me"
Search for articles by keyword
- 7 articles tagged accessibility
- 3 articles tagged axure
- 4 articles tagged benefits
- 8 articles tagged case study
- 1 article tagged css
- 6 articles tagged discount usability
- 2 articles tagged ecommerce
- 3 articles tagged ethnography
- 13 articles tagged expert review
- 1 article tagged fitts law
- 1 article tagged focus groups
- 1 article tagged forms
- 6 articles tagged guidelines
- 10 articles tagged heuristic evaluation
- 7 articles tagged ia
- 14 articles tagged iso 9241
- 6 articles tagged iterative design
- 3 articles tagged layout
- 1 article tagged legal
- 27 articles tagged management
- 10 articles tagged metrics
- 3 articles tagged mobile
- 5 articles tagged moderating
- 3 articles tagged morae
- 2 articles tagged navigation
- 6 articles tagged personas
- 13 articles tagged prototyping
- 7 articles tagged questionnaires
- 1 article tagged quotations
- 4 articles tagged roi
- 11 articles tagged selling usability
- 12 articles tagged standards
- 2 articles tagged style guide
- 4 articles tagged survey design
- 4 articles tagged task scenarios
- 2 articles tagged templates
- 17 articles tagged tools
- 38 articles tagged usability testing
- 3 articles tagged user manual