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By Chris Nodder |

Do Your Own Usability Testing — in 5 Smart (Cheap!) Steps

usability testing volunteer 

You’ve heard about usability testing: It’s a way to get immediate feedback about what works and doesn’t work with your product or site.

But you haven’t tried it yet, have you?

Maybe you think it costs a ton of money and involves hiring experts to help you out.

In fact, any team can do its own basic usability test cheaply—and can learn a bunch from it to make its product better—by following these five steps.

Unlike product satisfaction surveys, which often ask speculative questions, have low-quality respondents, and produce results which are hard to interpret, usability studies show you directly where real users stumble and what it was they were trying to achieve at that time.

Here’s how to run your own usability sessions and avoid common pitfalls:

1. Finding real users

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To get good results from usability sessions, you need to watch representative people working with the product. That means people who either use your product or a close competitor’s, or who likely would use it if they only knew about it.

Friends and family aren’t representative users.

Instead, you’re going to have to recruit people, and probably pay them for their time. Learn where and how to find them with the free video Finding the right participants from my lynda.com course Foundations of UX: Usability Testing.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 1.15.00 PM

2. Sitting down—and shutting up

Development teams are notoriously bad at just watching. They want to demo the cool features, tell people how to solve the problems they have, and generally show the product in its best light. That won’t work in a usability test.

You need to shut up and watch, even when the participant is really struggling. How else are you going to discover what the pain points are and how to fix them?

The best way to do this (short of slapping duct tape over everyone’s mouths) is to give your participant an open-ended task to perform. If they ask for help, first ask what they were expecting to see before you put them back on track. If they spend a long time not saying or doing anything, just prompt them to think out loud for you. This way, you get insight into how the participant thinks, rather than forcing your concepts on them.

3. Seeing what happens

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While you watch a usability session, you must keep your mind clear of solutions. Note the steps your participants take, the trouble they have, and the things they say.

Don’t start looking around for the nearest whiteboard to sketch out some ideas for fixes. That happens later.

Right now, you need to keep paying attention to this valuable source of information. Observing a usability session is more like attending a lecture than watching TV. You’re expected to take notes, and there will be an exam later!

Don’t try video-recording the sessions; it’s intrusive and you really won’t have time to watch the recordings later. Stay in the moment and just keep taking notes.

4. Prioritizing fixes

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 1.22.43 PM

After a usability session, it’s not uncommon to see developers rushing back to their desks to change some code. Although that enthusiasm is commendable, it’s a bad idea to base changes on just one or two users’ behavior. Wait until you’ve seen at least five participants, then take the time to list out all the issues you observed and rank them by severity (how bad they are) and scope (how often they’ll happen).

5. Acting on results

Usability tests are incredibly eye opening—but only for the people who watched them. For that reason, you need to get everyone on the team to watch at least one session, preferably more. That way, everyone has seen at least some of the problems that your product causes for your users.

Once you’ve run a test, track how many changes it created in the product, and what the value of those changes is in reduced support calls, increased conversions, or just more satisfied customers.

Usability testing: Just do it!


No matter what stage you’re at in your development process—whether you’re just starting to prototype or whether you’ve already released your product—you can learn a lot about how to improve customer satisfaction just by taking the time to run a quick usability test. Even the most basic test is very likely to pay for itself many times over.

Find out more about running your own usability test in my in-depth beginner course Foundations of UX: Usability Testing. You’ll get hints for recruiting participants, all the paperwork and checklists you might need, tips for the moderator and observers, and advice on analyzing the results.

Good luck!


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