A Beginner’s Guide to Usability Testing

Content User Research Magnifying Glass

By Shebani Saxena

Usability testing is like an acid test of a design. It allows you to get feedback on the design from intended users in a relatively cost-effective and easy way. It’s a great way to learn what is and isn’t working, and identify opportunities for improvement. Designers can test a design at any time in its lifecycle, and with a relatively small number of users, accessing diverse sets of users that may be locally situated or even across the globe.

Usability testing is an integral part of user experience (UX) design that allows us to get feedback directly from users, thereby making a product that’s not only functional and user-friendly, but also provides value. It’s often done at the beginning of a design project, with an intention to check the design structure’s efficiency, the organization of content, and whether the design direction is in line with the users’ “mental model,” motivations, and satisfaction. When incorporated towards the end of the design process, usability testing helps validate and evaluate whether the product’s design goals are met.

Key Steps in Usability Testing

Usability testing provides an opportunity to observe users while they interact with a design, and hence learn and understand not only the problems that occur but, more importantly, why they’re happening. For example, if a user is unable to complete a task in a mobile app, is it because some link labels don’t make sense? Or perhaps the content itself is confusing, or the whole task flow doesn’t meet their expectation. Testing also allows us to empathize with users by learning about how they think. This provides valuable insights and data that allow for effective and efficient design decisions — which also means fewer arguments about the design within the team and the stakeholders!

One of usability testing’s obvious benefits is that it leads to more user-friendly design, but there are other amazing reasons to implement the practice. Usability testing can lead to great results when it comes to comparing design alternatives, checking to see whether design goals are met, getting stakeholder buy-in, and more. The typical steps involved in conducting a usability test are:

  • Planning
  • Recruiting
  • Conducting the test
  • Analyzing the results
  • Debriefing and reporting

Depending on the design being tested, its objective, and its resource constraints, usability testing can be done through various approaches, including:

  • In-person moderated
  • Remote moderated
  • Remote unmoderated
  • Guerilla testing

In my mind, two of the key challenges in conducting a successful usability test are recruiting the right participants and having a skilled moderator. A good moderator must be empathetic, open-minded, and a good listener, and must have the ability to multitask!

Real-World Examples of Usability Testing

I once worked on a redesign of a website that sells and provides information on secondhand cars. As part of the project, my team did a usability test on the existing website to understand the problems users were facing. This website was designed for lead generation, promotion, retention, and advertisements by users who wanted to sell their cars or buy a secondhand car. When I reported the first day’s findings to the client’s team, they were shocked by some of the feedback.

The next day, the company’s CEO observed the sessions in person, and he was so overwhelmed by what he observed that he made it mandatory for the test session highlight videos to be put on every developer’s desktop. That way, when the developers logged into their systems every morning, the first thing they would see would be the users’ struggles. This was an excellent technique to allow the team to build empathy with the users and design with them at front of mind.

Another project I worked on that showcases the value of usability testing was a multi-country project for a technology hardware company. The original website was designed for the U.S. market, then adapted for China, Germany, and Russia. We needed to conduct a usability test on each of the four countries’ websites to understand if the expansion strategy was successful. Using the moderated remote usability testing methodology, we conducted tests in all four countries in a fairly short period of time, with no travel involved. We not only received great feedback on the websites, but also learned amazing insights into how the cultural differences affected the way the website was perceived in each country.

Usability Testing at General Assembly

At GA, usability testing is covered extensively in our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) program, and on a basic level in our part-time User Experience Design course, on campus and online. Students learn the detailed methodology and relevant tools, and have ample opportunity to practice it in class as well as in projects.

In class, students learn usability testing methods through practical exercises; in UXDI, for example, they do this by roleplaying as the moderator (test conductor), the participant (user), and the note-taker. Then they practice testing as part of virtually all their projects, including with real-world clients. By the end of the course, students are able to immediately apply their usability testing skills to new projects.

Meet Our Expert

Shebani Saxena has been practicing user experience design since 2004, when she began working with Human Factors International, the world’s largest UX company. After nearly six years there, she has worked as a freelance UX consultant for companies like The Pizza Company, Done by None, and Sun Life Financial. Shebani has a strong desire to keep learning and share her knowledge with others. She currently teaches the full-time User Experience Design Immersive course at GA Hong Kong.

“Products today need to be not only functional, but also build an emotional connection. Great user experience design enhances the consumer experience, builds brand equity, and impacts the business’s bottom line.”

Shebani Saxena, UX Design Immersive Instructor, General Assembly Hong Kong