How Usability Testing Improves UX Research

Ivan A Annikov
May 30, 2016 · 6 min read

Ever wonder why the navigation bar on your smartphone is on the top and not the bottom? Why are comments at the bottom of the page instead of the side? The answer is not, “duh, where else would they be?” Believe it or not, the smartphone interfaces we have become accustomed to were not always intuitive. Companies interested in moving their content to smartphones must conduct UX research to ensure a seamless user experience. But all the research in the world won’t make your mobile site or website stand out and keep the attention of its users, without testing it out with a small group of beta testers first.

When building software products, the focus on the user experience needs to be unequivocal. This process is made much easier through usability testing and other product feedback mechanisms. There are a variety of ways to find out which designs work best for users. Two common techniques to enable research teams are focus groups and usability tests. Let’s take a look at both of these methods.

Focus Groups and Usability Tests. What’s the Difference?

People often think focus groups and usability tests are one and the same when they couldn’t be more different. However, both can be valuable tools when conducting UX research. Before deciding which method to use, one must understand what questions need to be answered and what to expect from each method.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 1.06.44 PM
Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 1.06.44 PM

Focus groups take place in a group setting, and they are meant to help understand user’s opinions and feelings about the software product or website in question. However, focus groups can only assess what users “say” they would do. For example, participants might say they prefer Design A over Design B by just looking at them. Usability tests are typically performed one-on-one, and these tests are about discovering how individuals actually use things. In the previously mentioned design scenario, UX designers would conduct a usability test to discover which design users actually prefer.

Getting the Most Out of Usability Test Results

A recent Jen Romano Bergstrom article mentions that to achieve the most efficient usability testing results, designers must choose the best moderating techniques for their sessions. Some common moderating techniques include:

  • Retrospective Think Aloud (RTA) — participants are asked to retrace their steps at the end of the session. Sometimes participants watch a video replay of their actions. Video may contain valuable eye tracking data.
  • Concurrent Probing (CP) — participants are asked to work on a task. Researchers ask follow-up questions on comments that are being made while tasks are performed.
  • Retrospective Probing (RP) — participants are asked questions once the session is completed. RP is often used in conjunction with other methods. Researchers take notes while participants make actions or comments. Researchers then follows up with additional questions at the end of the session.
  • Concurrent Think Aloud (CTA) — this is a popular method that requires users to think aloud while interacting with products. The point is to elicit real-time feedback along with emotional responses as participants work.

Pilot Testing

Now that you’ve decided which type of methods to use, it’s time to rehearse before the big dance. Before delving into usability testing sessions make sure you have all the proper materials, consents, and documentation ready. Pilot tests are often overlooked, but necessary. Test drive all equipment with a volunteer participant just in case there are any technical issues to iron out. A good pilot test will provide initial feedback to facilitators and note-takers, and give facilitators an idea as to whether or not their questions are clear.

Exposition Testing

One way that Google gets great results from usability tests, is opting out of any product explanations at all, forcing participants to figure out products on their own. This approach reveals just how intuitive product features actually are. This type of testing is especially useful if the person testing the software is not an avid user of that particular app or website.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 1.07.02 PM
Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 1.07.02 PM

Forming a focus group that comprises of users from different tech backgrounds makes it super easy to see how intuitive your features are. Data from this type of UX research can be collected via a list of questions or a user diary, where users record their thoughts while navigating through the prototypes. Once all the data is collected, designers must sift through data to find patterns of usability issues.

Beta Testing

Once your software is built, it must be tested with real users outside of a controlled environment. If your company has the budget, there will probably be a beta test. Beta tests provide the best possible results as far as usability tests are concerned, as they show how users will actually interact with the closest to final version of a product. Not every company will have the budget to perform a top of the line beta test. This makes the prototyping phase even more crucial. During user acceptance testing, keep the focus on features that focus on functionality. Be sure to evaluate verbal and nonverbal feedback.

The Value of Prototyping

Product designers often utilize paper prototypes to optimize usability test results. These prototypes are a great way to get an idea of any rapid changes in functionality that may need to be tested or implemented, without the involvement of developers. The different screens are sketched before testing, then typical use cases are created and users attempt to perform them through interaction with the paper prototype.

Paper prototypes are conceptual sketches that are used to:

  • Discover any kinks in the existing design
  • Make fast changes to designs that are causing problems
  • Re-test the prototype to the user to see if changes were effective

Usability Testing Best Practices

Even if you only have a limited amount of time to conduct testing, don’t make participants feel like they are inconveniencing you. You’ve done a lot of work to get this far — take your time. This is the really important part. Treat participants with respect and make them feel comfortable. You don’t want to hurt your usability testing results because participants feel anxious or intimidated. Here’s a few tips to avoid botching usability tests:

  • Remain Neutral — your job is to observe and ask questions. Do not lead participants to a desired answer. This defeats the whole purpose of testing.
  • Do Not Help — at least not right away. If a participant gets stuck, consult with the team on when and how much to help when users are going down the wrong path.
  • Take Really Good Notes — this should go without saying. Note takers should jot down as many details as possible. This makes analysis easier in the long run.
  • Be Inclusive — measure both subjective (preference) and performance metrics. These two metrics may not always match up. Some people may perform well but have low subjective ratings and vice versa.

*Performance measures include: success, time, errors, etc. Subjective measures include: user’s comfort ratings and self-reported satisfaction.

Companies spend thousands of dollars on designing software. But it means nothing if software is not intuitive or user-friendly. Bottom line — testing matters. Usability tests and focus groups are just a few methods to perfect the user experience. Good luck!


Originally published at Betaloop.

    Ivan A Annikov

    Written by

    Technology enthusiast, product designer, entrepreneur, world traveler, patron of the arts, student of life...