What is usability testing?

As the name suggests, usability testing is about testing the web site/page/application with real life users. There are different ways that this can be achieved depending on project approach, testing time available, and budget.

Experienced user focused professionals have often seen the great benefits gained from usability testing and will generally be in favor of a robust testing plan being factored into a web project as early as possible.

As the value of usability testing is not always well understood resistance to the practice is still quite common. This can cause great frustration amongst UX professionals as the implications of not providing sufficient time and resources to it can be severe.

Some common types of usability testing are:

  • Clickable prototype - this is often made up of either static images which are made clickable via the application of clickable hotspots (to facilitate user interaction), or working html/flash web pages that are also made clickable (to a greater or lesser degree).
  • Clickable wireframes which although generally devoid of colour and other core aspects of visual design, can be a quick way (depending on the software package being used), to quite quickly utilise wireframe documentation for the purposes of testing designs. Axure is a popular wireframing program that is designed to allow reasonably quick creation of clickable wireframes based prototypes.
  • Remote usability testing - here a user can be tested from the comfort of their real life browsing environment (therefore potentially showing more true to life results) allowing their progress through the predefined tasks to be viewed/recorded using relevant software.
  • Paper prototype - web pages/interfaces are simply sketched onto paper and then tested with suitable candidates. This approach is often used several times during the early stages of a project as a quick and low cost way to test, refine and re-test (known as an iterative process) to see if users can easily follow given design patterns and approaches through to task completion. However in my view this methodology needs to backed up later on in the project with a more robust usability testing approach utilising more structured design work that is closer to the finished article.

It's critical that the user tasks to be tested as well as a moderators' guide are produced by an experienced usability testing practitioner. The role of testing moderator itself requires key skills in order to draw out the common patterns of comprehension and behavior from the testing candidates.

The key benefit of usability testing is that testing design concepts on users prior to full technical build allows the design team to bring the usability of a new design from an initial point of "nice idea, but would it work for our customer base" to "proven idea which has been refined into a tried and tested design". The proposed design can then be refined and polished to as high a level as the projects' usability testing time constraints and budget allow.

The powerful business case is quite simply that it's much much cheaper to fix usability problems iteration by iteration before the final solution is built and launched (at which point it's sometimes passed the point of no return).

Next steps

See 'UX terminology' navigation (located below if viewing this page on your phone or tablet) for my perspective on other UX terminology.

Interested in learning more about UX?
Receive my free UX insights & career guidance by email to help you on your journey:

Still got a question about UX? Please get in touch

Updated: 26 Aug 2015
Share this page

Interested in learning more about UX?
Receive free my UX insights & career guidance by email to help you on your journey: