No matter what type of system you’re building, be it a website, web app or desktop app, user testing is a vital tool that will allow you to identify problems in your system and help you build a better experience for your users.

It’s not necessarily a costly and time consuming endeavor. In fact, a few friends and some food may be all you need to get some great insight on how to improve your system.

Here are some introductory user testing methodology tips to help you get started towards building a better experience for your users. Note that I’m using the term ‘website’ to describe a product or system, but this process can be applied to any activity that requires user interaction.

Assembling a team of testers

The first step in user testing is assembling a group of people to test your website. This may require some bribery in the form of food and drinks, or some gift cards or money. An easy way to assemble a test group is to invite friends, family, or business associates. Whenever possible, try to assemble a group of people who are representative of your target market. This may involve going outside your social circle and may require some extra financial incentives for your participants. You should also avoid using people who have directly worked on the project (ie, developers or other stakeholders) because their knowledge of the website may be too intimate to offer new insight.

Define tasks

It’s important to provide your testers with a selection of tasks you would like them to complete. The tasks should be as specific as possible without guiding the user. For example, you could ask the user to ‘Comment on an article’. This may entail creating a user account, logging in, clicking on an article, reading it, then adding a comment. You don’t want to provide a step by step account of how to add a comment. The goal is to allow your user testing participants to figure it out on their own, and watch for points of struggle or failure.

Stay quiet

Have you ever watched a movie, and then watched it again with someone who has never seen it, only to have them ask a hundred questions about the plot as it’s unfolding? They’re looking for answers rather than letting the plot unfold and explain itself. The same thing can happen if you’re around to answer questions or concerns about your system while users are testing it.

You need to discourage questions from your users while they’re actively working through assigned tasks. The goal of user testing isn’t to ensure that your test groups understand how to expertly navigate your website. The goal (at least one of the goals) is to identify the problem areas so you know what to fix. If you walk your users through the system, you’re only hurting your ability to find the problems that will affect your real world users when your website is launched.

The best way to discourage questions is to go away. If you leave your users alone, rather than watch over their shoulder, you won’t be there to guide them. Setup a camera (webcam or otherwise) and candidly record the user as they work.

This can be a hard thing to do, and you might feel the urge to defend your website when you see a user struggling and swearing. Resist this urge! People using your website once it’s released won’t have the luxury of asking for your help, and neither should your test group.

Don’t ask what they think

Asking a user what they think about feature XYZ will result in them telling you they’d prefer if the colour was blue instead of red. When it comes to interacting with your system, their opinion is less important than their actions. Your users are going to relate to your app based on previous experiences. Their success or failure in interacting with your system is going to depend a lot more on their subconscious recollection of similar interactions they’ve experienced than what they consciously think.

Rather than querying them on their thoughts about how things work, you need to watch their actions and expressions and draw appropriate conclusions. For example, confused and frustrated facial expressions and hand gestures are a good clue that something isn’t making sense to the user. Aimlessly clicking around, browsing back in the web browser, and high usage of navigation elements are indications that your user is having trouble figuring out where to go or how to find what they’re looking for.

It’s helpful to encourage your testers to verbalize how they’re interacting with the site as they’re doing it. For example, you’ll have a better idea of a user’s mindset if they say “I’m submitting my web form. Waiting? What’s happening now? Is there an error? This is taking forever.” as they click a ‘Submit’ button, than if they just sit there staring blankly.

Keep notes about any interaction you think the user enjoyed or is struggling with and ask them about it after they’re done. You’re not looking for their opinion on how to fix something they think is broken, rather how they felt about trying to achieve their goal. Feeling and emotion play a significant role in the experience people will take away from using your system. Don’t expect users to be delighted with every interaction, it’s possible that anything north of neutral emotion is a successful outcome.

Most users are going to have suggestions on how to fix some element of your website to fit their needs. It’s important to listen carefully to their suggestions. While it’s quite probable that you’ll gain insight from feature suggestions, it’s important not to get carried away trying to meet everyones needs. Keep your project goals in mind and avoid scope creep at all costs. Remember, attempting to build something that is ideal for everyone will render it useless to everyone. And the more features you add, the harder it is for people to use your product and for your team to maintain it.

Measuring success

How you define a successful user test varies depending on your goals. If you’re introducing a new, novel interaction, just having users understand what you’re trying to achieve could be enough.

It’s important to figure out what you want to get out of user testing, and what you plan to do with the information collected. User testing shouldn’t be an activity just for the sake of checking it off a todo list. No matter how you define your success, the purpose of user testing should be to beat the hell out of your system in an effort to discover ways to enhance interactions that make your system more usable, and more enjoyable to use.

Looking to plan and conduct a step-by-step usability test?

If you have an existing app, website, or other software you’d like to conduct some user testing with, dig into our detailed three step Plan, Test, Analyze process for conducting an effective usability test. By understanding this user testing methodology, alongside the tips in this article, you’ll have the framework you need to level up your user testing game.

Learn the three steps of an effective usability testing