Reduce risk by usability testing first

Usability test to align the business model and product roadmap with true user intent

Jared John
4 min readJan 4, 2017

What risk, you ask? The risk involved with designing and building without testing on your target user groups is critically high, that risk being failure. Regardless of your flawless execution (i.e. product uses recognizable interface patterns, functions as your team intends, no bugs, speedy load times, etc.) and even if you’ve hired the best designers, developers and content strategists, you simply cannot predict, let alone solve, usability problems without collecting the data.

My experience conducting usability tests for products and websites all have uncovered some high-level concerns, whether with the business model, audiences, or product goals. Here are some of those larger themes:

  • Misleading the user
  • User doesn’t comprehend, can’t grasp important features/content
  • Wrong audience
  • Right audience, wrong goals
  • Lack of trust

Note: I’ve included quotes from past usability sessions for each theme. The actual product/website names are not included.

Misleading the user

This is the most obvious and easiest to find during a usability test. It occurs when a product has mislead the user to believe it functions in such a way or contains specific content, neither of which are clear. When a user sits, spinning their wheels for too long, feeling confused or deceived, they abandon, or worse, bash your brand.

“I’m not sure what this has to do with [product] to be honest.”

“Wow, this is not what I was expecting.”

“I’m a little confused as to why this information is even on here.”

User doesn’t comprehend, can’t grasp important features

The product requires more education, not just on interacting with the product, but on the content, the marketing pitch, etc. Perhaps your problem-to-be-solved is trying to over simplify by using vague terminology. Or the opposite, it uses overly specific jargon and acronyms that shut out users due to lack of comprehension. Through usability testing, we uncover the specific verbiage and concepts that aren’t working.

“I have no idea what that would be.”

“This is going to take too long to figure out”

“Doesn’t give me any idea on what I’d be getting from this website.”

Advice: After conducting usability testing and discovering the problem areas, use quantitative data gathering techniques such as surveys for learning your users terminology. Use your analytics and, as always, A/B/Multivariate test the proposed solutions to find the most performant outcome.

Wrong audience

The product might be great for your ideally defined audience, but does that particular audience segment exist? Are they the ones using your product? Hearing words like “neat” or “cool” during a usability study is always a great sign that your product has traction. These are positive indications you’re on track with your intended audiences. Through usability testing, you’ll understand your audiences better and likely discover a missing segment.

“I don’t think I would find this helpful.”

“It is good information, useful, but tailored to those that don’t know what they want to do.”

Right audience, Wrong goals

This is the case when a users needs are not in line with how your product or content is presented. It includes: misaligned product/website pitch, hierarchy of content is off, unnecessary functionality, or content is of little value. One of the biggest offenders is not presenting the value-add or big features where your audience is expecting to find it.

“That’s not something I’m looking for here.”

“I already know why I’m looking at [topic]… I’m looking for specific information on where these are offered.”

“I don’t think this adds value… that’s not why I’m on the site.”

Advice: Learn your users goals, speak in their language, and rank your features by user need. By keeping up with your largest audience segment you’ll be able to pivot and adapt more smoothly. The burden of failing to adapt or changing too late is that your audience has already left. Thorough user research must be able to pinpoint the motivations per audience segment. The product must work with these goals, not against them.

Lack of trust

The information provided is viewed as untrustworthy or product is not believed to deliver on its promise. This is big. Without trust, you can’t sell, market or deliver content effectively. Are you asking for too much personal information upfront? Too many ads on your website? Is your product not proving to do what it says it does?

“I personally always avoid those.”

“That’s a big red flag.”

“I’d be hesitant to fill this out.”

Advice: Trust is harder to test with early iterations of a product or website. Wireframes, sketches and other low-fidelity prototypes are not accurate indicators. That said, you don’t need all the functionality to test for trustworthiness. A high-fidelity mock-up with content is enough for a user to form an impression.

In conclusion, it’s not enough to just know of these themes. They won’t provide specific enough insight of your particular users experience. Fortunately, it’s a simple enough solution to get the details you need to reduce the risk of failure.

Jared John is a user experience researcher with a knack for usability testing digital products and websites. He’s known for his smooth moderator voice during tests and erratic display of post-its notes during data coding.

photo credits: mbeo connected via photopin (license), Mister G.C. Mr. Eh? via photopin (license)