Usability testing guide: Methods, questions, examples & more

Jack Wolstenholm
April 12, 2024
Usability testing guide: Methods, questions, examples & more

Usability testing is one of the quickest ways to discover customers’ needs and unearth design flaws in your product, whether a mobile app, website, or software experience. Through usability testing, you can observe how customers interact with your product early on in the development process. With their insights, you can build designs and products your customers love and minimize frustrations throughout the user experience.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll take a look at how usability testing works, including its different types and methods, and how they can benefit your business.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a UX research method that involves gathering real-time insights into how real users interact with a product. Through specific tasks, it gauges the intuitiveness of an interface and design, aiming to uncover areas of confusion and opportunities to improve. 

This step is crucial in product development, as user frustration can drive users to abandon tasks and seek out competitive offerings. By discovering issues early, you can refine your design, features, functions, and navigation before launching your solution.

Benefits of usability testing to consider

Usability testing throughout the product development process isn't just a good idea. It's essential. Key advantages of usability testing include:

  • Enhanced user experience (UX): Understanding how real users interact with your product helps you uncover blind spots, design flaws, and opportunities to improve your design and functionality. With that knowledge, you can make changes that improve the UX.
  • Increased customer satisfaction: A better UX makes for happier, more loyal customers. As you incorporate feedback from usability testing, you can hone your product or design according to users’ needs and preferences.
  • Improved product performance: By identifying and addressing product issues or bottlenecks, you can optimize its performance and increase efficiency.
  • Cost reduction: Ironing out issues and prioritizing features your users want can save time and resources, preventing costly fixes or product failures. It also makes for a smooth go-to-market stage and increases adoption when you go live. 
  • Return on investment (ROI): According to Nielsen Norman Group, investing 10% of a project’s budget toward usability testing yields significant returns across various metrics — increasing conversion rates, site traffic, user productivity, and use of specific features.  

Types of usability testing to conduct

Where you're testing an app, website, or software program, there are various ways you can evaluate usability. Combined, the various testing types work together to paint a complete picture of how your product functions in real user scenarios.

Qualitative vs. quantitative usability testing

With qualitative usability testing, the aim is to understand the UX through users’ eyes. Researchers may observe how participants interact with the user interface and encounter problematic areas or successful design features. They may ask questions to clarify users’ pain points, encouraging them to “think out loud,” and express their opinions as they complete tasks. 

This type of subjective data is useful for understanding why certain design elements don’t work as intended and how to change them. As you continue gathering qualitative insights, you may discover user trends and information that can help you decide what to tweak in the next version of the design. Also, because qualitative data is open to interpretation, you may draw different conclusions based on how an observer assesses the results, providing diverse perspectives.

Quantitative usability testing relies on numerical data to measure various user interactions. It can include objective metrics such as task completion times, success or error rates, and user satisfaction ratings. Combined with qualitative insights, quantitative data provides deeper insights into a product’s overall usability and performance. With quantitative testing, context is crucial — for example, comparing the data to previous benchmarks or clarifying why users stumbled at specific points in the test. 

Moderated vs. unmoderated usability testing

In moderated usability testing, a facilitator guides participants through specific tasks while observing how they interact with the product. This method allows for real-time feedback and clarification, enabling deeper insights into user behavior and thought processes. Moderated testing is particularly useful for gathering qualitative data and exploring complex user journeys with more nuanced usability issues.

Unmoderated usability testing involves participants completing tasks remotely on their own. Participants follow instructions to access the product and have their interactions recorded for later analysis. Scalable and cost-effective, unmoderated testing works well when you desire a larger sample size spanning geographies and want to test elements that don’t require direct interaction with participants.

Additional testing methods

Prototype testing

Prototype testing is a crucial step in designing products before they’re fully developed. This method involves testing a model of the product to see how it works and how users interact with it. By watching users try out the prototype and listening to their feedback, designers can find ways to improve the product and ensure it meets users’ needs. This approach helps bridge the gap between the initial idea and the final product, ensuring it’s user-friendly and effective.

Card sorting

Card sorting involves participants organizing content or features into categories that make sense to them. Researchers can conduct open card sorts, where participants create their own categories, or closed card sorts, where users organize content into predetermined categories. Using card sorting insights, product designers can refine their menu structures, information architecture, and content organization to enhance the UX.

Tree testing

Also known as reverse card sorting, tree testing evaluates a website or app's hierarchical structure. Tasks may include locating specific pages or information, interpreting terminology such as acronyms or abbreviations, or comparing two or more items within the “tree.” The goal is to identify navigation issues and optimize the architecture for improved user navigation.

Usability testing questions to ask

When running a usability test, there are two types of questions you can ask: closed-ended and open-ended. Each serving its own purpose in evaluating usability and identifying areas for improvement.

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions invite respondents to express their thoughts freely without limiting them to “yes” or “no” answers. You might ask:

  1. What’s your experience been like with this product feature?
  2. What are your thoughts on the overall usability of this interface?
  3. How would you improve the navigation in this app?
  4. What aspects of this website do you find most appealing or frustrating?
  5. What changes would enhance the user experience?

Closed-ended questions

Closed-ended questions have specific response options, making them suitable for quantitative analysis. You might ask:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with this feature? (1 = Very dissatisfied, 5 = Very satisfied)
  2. Which of the following words best describes your experience with this website: easy, moderate, difficult?
  3. Would you recommend this app to a friend? (Yes/No)
  4. How frequently do you encounter issues while using this product? (Rarely, Occasionally, Frequently)
  5. Which feature do you find most useful: A, B, or C?

Related read: Rating scales, the more points the merrier? by Thomas Stokes, UXR Consultant & Principal at Drill Bit Labs

Usability testing examples & use cases

Website usability testing

Say a retail company wants to optimize the UX on its e-commerce platform. So, this company recruits B2C research participants who represent the website’s target demographic. Participants complete typical actions such as browsing products, adding items to their carts, and checking out. 

Through observation and feedback collection, researchers identify stumbling blocks in the navigation, search, and checkout processes. Usability testing reveals potential improvements to the website's design, layout, and user flow, enhancing the overall UX and increasing sales for the company.

Mobile app usability testing

Suppose a fitness app developer aims to refine the UI and features of its workout and meal planning app. Researchers conduct usability testing sessions with existing and new users, asking them to perform tasks such as logging workouts and meals, setting goals, and accessing workout routines. 

Through screen recording and real-time observation, researchers identify areas of confusion, navigation difficulties, and feature preferences. Usability testing feedback guides the development team in adjusting the app’s layout, information architecture, functionality, and user onboarding process. As a result, users experience an improved UX, app downloads increase, and premium subscriptions grow.

Software usability testing

In a software usability testing example, a client management software company conducts usability testing to evaluate the effectiveness of its messaging features. Usability testing sessions engage individuals who regularly use client management tools in their work.

Participants must fulfill various assignments, such as creating and assigning tasks, managing status updates, and generating reports. Researchers observe participants’ interactions with the software, noting any difficulties or inefficiencies they encounter. Usability testing findings inform enhancements to the software’s messaging interface, automations, workflows, and functionality, ensuring it meets its target users’ needs.

Answers to frequently asked questions

Why is usability testing important?

Usability testing is critical because it helps software and web developers understand how real users interact with their products. By observing users and gathering feedback, businesses can find and fix problems, making their products easier to use and more satisfying for customers.

When to do usability testing

Usability testing should happen throughout product development, from design to launch and beyond. It’s a best practice to conduct usability testing when making significant changes or adding new features. Testing early and often helps you catch problems and make improvements before launching.

How many participants do you need for a usability test?

You need at least five users for each type of person who will use your product. A broader test group can help you uncover more problems and better empathize with different experiences. Also, if you’re looking for statistically significant results, aim for at least 20 users. However, bear in mind that qualitative research — not faceless data — often gives you the most profound insights into design and development. 

How to recruit users for usability testing

Find users who are most like the people who will use your product. You can ask customers, use online testing websites, or work with research companies. Choose users based on factors like age, occupation, or how they use similar products.

How to conduct usability testing

Don’t overcomplicate things. Plan what you want to test and how. Ask users to try tasks that match real situations. Watch and listen as users try your product, and take notes on what they do and say.

How to analyze usability test results

Dissect what users did and said during testing. Group similar feedback together, and find the common denominators. Use this information to decide what changes are most important and how to improve your product.

The bottom line on usability testing

Throughout this guide, we've explored the importance of usability testing in optimizing digital products for enhanced user experiences. From usability testing fundamentals to benefits, methods, and key questions, we’ve covered all the vital aspects businesses need to know to build products that people love to use.

The bottom line, as Nielsen Norman Group's Kate Moran points out, is this:

“The only way to get UX design right is to test it.”

And no, you can’t test once and call it a day; usability testing should be an ongoing discovery process that sheds light on users’ most profound wants and needs. 

The only way to know if you hit the mark is by asking real users and continuing to iterate until you have a final draft. Don’t leave it for the last minute, either. The earlier you can gather user insights, the more time you have to make improvements and implement user feedback until you have a product that the majority of users prefer.

Jack is the Content Marketing Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end UX research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

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