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Neicole Crepeau

Conducting a Usability Study is Easier than You Think

By: Neicole Crepeau | August 14, 2013 | 
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Usability Study

By Neicole Crepeau

When you think of usability testing, do you may imagine labs with one-way glass, degreed experts writing elaborate test plans, and eye-tracking software?

Perhaps you think only big companies can afford to usability test their websites and apps.

It’s not true.

You don’t need a lab to do usability testing.

Nor do you need to be an expert to conduct a decent study to reveal valuable insights about your website or product.

Why Do a Usability Study?

Maybe you  already do A/B testing and check your site analytics. That’s great. But usability testing provides different insights you can’t get from those tools.

Looking at statistics and click-paths can tell you what the bulk of users are doing, as well as which formats yield better results.

They can’t tell you why: Why one format works better than another, why users drop off at a certain page, or why they chose one navigation path over another.

When you do a usability test, you observe people and listen to the reasons for their decisions. You learn the why. Because of that, almost any product or site can benefit.

Where to Do the Test

The most basic form of usability testing is a simple observational study; you observe users as they work in your product or accomplish a task. Labs with one-way glass are nice, however, you can conduct a study in-person. You just need to take extra care to avoid biasing the subject.

There are two ways to do the in-person study. You can set up your own location and ask people to come to it, generally using a computer you’ve set up specifically for the study. Or you can go to the user’s home or workplace, and observe the user there – in which case they will work on their own equipment.

If you can do so, I recommend going to the user’s location. In the real world, our computer set up isn’t always ideal. We might have a low-light office, or work somewhere with large windows and a lot of screen glare. It might be loud with a lot of interruptions. Watching users try to use your website or software with all the complications of the real world environment can show you how the system will perform for the average users, rather than in a sanitized environment.

The Most Important Rule

The most important rule when conducting a study is to not bias your subject. For example, if your test participants have information your real-world users won’t have, than you aren’t observing how regular folks will react the first time they come to your product.

Similarly, study participants often ask questions during the study. Don’t answer them—not unless you intend to provide every user with a specialist to sit next to them while they use your website in their home or office. (You can tell users you will make a note of their questions, and answer them after the test.)

As well as not providing information or answering questions, you need to be careful not to provide any feedback during the test. Both your verbal language and your body language must remain neutral. For example, if the user says, “I’m always confused by these kinds of menus.”  Don’t say, “Me, too” or “Yeah, I know.” Use a neutral response or an open-ended question, encouraging the person to provide more information:  “That’s informative” or “Can you tell me more?”

Keep a poker face, as well.  No grimaces, no shaking the head, no crossed arms. Ideally, stand behind the subject so they can’t see your facial expressions or body language.

Testing Requires a Plan

Conducting a usability study does require planning and preparation. You need to start with specific goals to define what you want to learn from the study. Then, determine what tasks you need users do in order to accomplish that. A task can be something as simple as “Please open the website, and use it to learn more about xyz.” It might be something specific you want the user to do in your product, such as using a share feature.

Based on the tasks, create a plan for the study, moving users through the tasks. As you develop the plan, you need to create:

  • A script: It’s best to write out exactly what you will say before, during, and after the test, so you can make sure the language is neutral, and the instructions are the same for every subject.
  • The instructions: You may have written instructions for users, usually with one task per page. For instance, instructions the user must follow to access your website. Ensure you specify the task you want the user to try to complete, without providing any information about how to complete it.
  • Prerequisites, technical setup, etc.: To conduct the study, you may need to provide a specific machine setup, a login for your subjects, necessary materials, etc. Visualize the test step-by-step, and note everything you will need to provide or set up ahead of time, in order to allow users to complete it.
  • Participant requirements: A study is only useful if you have the right participants. You want to see how certain target users do with your website or product. Based on that, you can narrow down the requirements participants must meet in order to be part of the test, as well as how you will determine if they meet those requirements, and where you can recruit such people.
  • Data capture: When you design a study, it’s important to keep in mind what information you are going to gather, and how you will record it so you can analyze it. Create any necessary forms, questionnaires, and other tools you’ll use to capture information during the test.

Next Steps

You can easily educate yourself and create and conduct your own usability studies. There’s lots of free information out there. If you want to learn more, the resources in the Clipsi board below can be a good starting point.

Users today expect products and sites to be easy to use, and will abandon ones that aren’t. Observing people using your site can uncover surprising roadblocks that are causing your users to fail or leave. While testing does take time, the investment is one that rarely fails to pay off.

About Neicole Crepeau


Neicole Crepeau is a senior marketing manager at Vizit Corporation. She’s the visionary behind Clipsi, a curation and social collaboration tool that uses the Pinterest metaphor. You can connect with her on Twitter, Google Plus, or at the Clipsi Blog.

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