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Usability testing – A guide for clients working with digital agencies

Aug 2019

Over ten years of developing digital products and services, we’ve found that our clients benefit from learning more about important processes in Agile development. In this ‘Client’s Guide’ series, we’ll shed light on the main things you should expect to be involved with when working with a digital agency, and why they are beneficial to your project.

If you’ve been involved in website or app design projects before, you’ve no doubt heard digital teams talking about usability testing. But what is it, and why is it important?

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is the process of finding out how easy a digital product or website is to use. It typically involves asking participants to complete specific tasks and then observing and analysing their behaviour. This allows you to get unbiased, accurate feedback from people who represent your typical user – for example, your customer, patient, employee.

Why is usability testing necessary?

Nowadays, people use digital tools in their everyday life and come to expect a frictionless experience. With user expectations increasing and attention spans decreasing, organisations need to make sure that their websites or apps are easy to use. Failure to do so may result in losing customers, or if it’s an internal tool, employee frustration and wasted time.

While you might love the designs, you’re unable to see them through the eyes of a user who is experiencing the product for the first time. Even experienced User Experience (UX) Designers who follow the best UX practices cannot do that. It’s the end user’s perspective that counts – and usability testing is the best way to get their unbiased feedback.

‘If you want a great site, you’ve got to test. After you’ve worked on a site for even a few weeks, you can’t see it freshly anymore. You know too much. The only way to find out if it really works is to test it.’– Steve Krug, author of the renowned book ‘Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability’ 

What kind of things does it test for?

Usability can explore a whole range of factors around how users experience your product, such as:

  • How easy it is for them to find what they want
  • How long it takes them to complete a task
  • How much they enjoy using your product
  • Where they look for specific things
  • Where they get lost or confused

All of these factors can contribute massively to the success of your site or product. Not only do they affect whether users enjoy using it, but also how well it moves users towards a certain business objective.

When to conduct usability testing?

Ideally, you conduct usability testing at various stages of your project. 

You can start testing as soon as you have paper sketches of your product. We recommend having the first round of usability testing no later than at the design completion stage – before the development commences. 

Developing digital products is a costly process. If you only do usability testing at the end end of that process and find out that your designs have problems, you’ll need to redo a lot of work. In contrast, any usability issues can be addressed quickly in the earlier stages of the project. So conducting usability testing throughout the process can save you a lot of time and money.

However, you should also test the coded version of your product. This will allow you to iron out further usability issues, especially around interactions that would not have been possible to test with the design prototypes. 

What’s the process for usability testing?

There are usually five stages of usability testing:

1. Testing plan & script. The project team decides which activities they want the participant to complete, and what success would look like.

2. Recruit. Participants representing the organisation’s typical users are recruited for the study (this may be done by you by directly contacting your users or via an external specialist agency).

3. Test. Participants are asked to complete certain tasks while using the prototype or final digital tool. The sessions are usually moderated and observed by the designer or Researcher and are recorded.

4. Analyse. The testing team looks at their recordings and observation notes to identify what participants liked, disliked and struggled with.

5. Document. Findings from the study are documented, allowing the project team to make decisions on any changes needed and plan future iterations.

What does this look like in practice?

Let’s say you’re creating a membership website and your team wants to test whether your members can successfully renew their membership application form. 

You would recruit test participants who fit the typical profile of the users, in this case, you will recruit your existing members. Usually, you would have to compensate the participants for their time.

The participants would either attend the session in person or join an online video conference call. The moderator (usually the User Researcher or UX Designer) would explain what will happen. The participants would then be asked to complete certain tasks, such as renew their membership, make an additional contribution or amend communication preferences. The Researcher would moderate the session; they would observe and record the session for further analyses or have a colleague taking notes.

Next, the team would analyse whether participants were successful in completing the tasks or not, where they struggled, and what their journeys looked like. Problem areas would be identified, and action points suggested.

How long does usability testing take?

A typical usability testing session takes around one hour per participant. At Bit Zesty, we recommend testing with five to seven participants per user group. Ideally, you would test with each user group, but if the budget is tight, you can focus on your primary users.

Are there any drawbacks of usability testing?

While usability testing is generally considered a reliable way to evaluate your work, it’s not perfect. Reasons include:

  • Realism. Tests are often carried out in quiet spaces. But in reality, people use digital products in noisy places with numerous distractions. 
  • Lack of quantitative data. Usability testing doesn’t produce statistically significant data because it’s done with low numbers of participants.
  • Costs & time. Usability testing can add to the timeline and cost of the project.

Despite these drawbacks, the digital industry recognises the usability testing as the most effective way to get deeper insights into the usability of digital tools. 

After all, while the testing may not identify all the issues, it captures the most obvious ones. If the user struggles to complete a task in a quiet environment with lots of time on their hands, what are the chances that they will do so when they are on the go?

In terms of statistical significance, there are other research tools – analyses of user behaviour through analytics, user surveys and feedback – that can be combined with usability testing. However, most of these are only applicable once the product is launched.

Finally, the extra time and costs it takes to conduct usability testing will reduce rework in the long run and will result in a better end product.

‘If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.’— Dr. Ralf Speth, Chief Executive Officer, Jaguar Land Rover

As a user-centred digital agency, Bit Zesty are advocates of all user research, but if we had to pick one user research technique that every project would benefit most from – it is usability testing. Unless the website or app has undergone usability testing, it cannot be considered easy to use.