Conducting a Successful Usability Test, Part 1: Design

What’s the best way to find out what visitors think of your site? Ask them! We’ll tell you everything you need to know to plan a successful usability test.

The concept of usability testing is pretty straightforward: you gather a sample of your users and ask them to complete a series of tasks on whatever item you’d like to evaluate, and see where they encounter problems or get confused. Companies have long used this strategy to identify and work out issues with a product before sending it to market, and as more and more business is conducted online web developers are adopting this strategy to work out kinks in their website designs, too.

When designing a usability test for your website, start by asking yourself:

  • What do I want to find out?
  • What tasks might provide this information?
  • How can I effectively gather a sample of users?

Behind the Scenes

Know What You Don’t Know

In-depth user research such as usability testing can fill gaps in the information you already collect about your website. For example, basic web analytics services such as Google analytics may tell you that most of your website’s visitors are males between the ages of 25 and 40 years old, but can they tell you why other demographics click away from your site, or bounce, at a much higher rate? Not really. Before you start designing your usability test, it is a good idea to analyze any information you already have about your website so you know what information to look for with your test.

analytics
‍Reviewing your site’s analytics is a great way to determine what you should try to discover in a usability test.

Designing Tasks and Questions

A usability test is primarily comprised of a series of tasks that you ask your users to complete. Depending on the length of the test length of the tasks themselves, a usability test can contain just a few in-depth tasks or several less-involved ones. Either way, once you have figured out what information you need to gather, designing the tasks becomes much simpler.

Khan Academy landing page
‍Khan Academy’s landing page links to a number of different pages. Usability testing could offer insight into why users may be more inclined to follow some links than others.


For example, perhaps you learn from analytics that not many of your users make it to your site’s donation page. You could design a task to test whether or not users are able to easily navigate to the donations part of your site. This can be as simple as: Imagine you are visiting this page to submit a donation. How would you go about attempting to do that? A task like this gets your visitors to focus on how they experience the very part of your site you have questions about.

You can also gather more information by tweaking the task a bit: Imagine you are an investor interested in supporting companies dedicated to promoting education. How would you go about using this site? This leaves the task more open-ended. Perhaps your user will look for information about your company before attempting to navigate to the donations page. Perhaps they will attempt to navigate to the donation page, assuming the information they want to know will also be there. Take some time and play with the wording of your tasks in order to get the most out of them.

question
‍There are lots of questions you could ask during a usability test, but the key is finding the right ones to uncover the information you’re looking for.

Calling All Users

With your usability test designed, it’s time to start gathering users who are willing to participate in your evaluation. Depending on your company, you may do this through social media or email, by calling users on the phone, or by sending invitations to your users in the mail. Offer some sort of compensation for your user’s input, and also be respectful of their time; do your best to accommodate their schedules.

Traditional usability tests are usually conducted on site at your company’s location. In order to accommodate as many participants as possible, you must make yourself available during a variety of time slots. However, this limits your testing pool to users geographically close to your company, which can be problematic if you want to get a broad sample of users.

If you are smart about reaching out to your users, you should have plenty of volunteers to pick from. Make sure that you select participants who are representative of the visitors who actually use your site: if your audience is primarily young women between the ages of 18 and 25, you probably don’t want every single one of your participants to be in their late 50s.

With the above design tips in mind, you’ll create a plan for a usability test that is destined to succeed. Keep an eye out for the conclusion of this guide-- Conducting a Successful Usability Test, Part 2: Implementation-- which will cover how you can make sure your usability test runs as smoothly as you designed it to.