Tips and tools for usability testing

The single most empowering thing you can do when building or improving a product, is talk to your users.

While it sounds easy-peasy to reach out to users, getting into the swing of it can take some time. It’s also common to feel anxious about a range of aspects of usability testing or interviews – especially if you’re a designer, project manager, or entrepreneur with little experience with conducting interviews or research.

A few weeks ago I dove into some user interviews as a total newbie. We did four days of remote and in-person interviews. Thankfully I had the support and insights from our UX research team who showed me that there are some awesome tools and tips that anyone can use to get over the first few hurdles and move swiftly into a smooth and effective interview flow.

My goal here is to share some of those lessons for anyone else out there who is thinking of interviewing their users. It can be a little intimidating, but hopefully you’ll feel more empowered to get out there and get the insights you need with a few of these tricks of the trade.


10 tips for UX interviews

  1. Write a script
    Having a script is handy to maintain consistency between interviews, and to help other members of your team follow along. It also allows you to build in unbiased questions at every step. I recommend printing out the script as a prompt and highlighting your questions so you hit the same key points with every user.
    *Don’t forget to ask permission to record the interview and share it with your team—I built this question into my script so I wouldn’t forget.
  2. Divide & conquer with emails 
    Your teammates can help when it comes to randomly selecting users and editing your email template, and even better if you can get multiple members on your team to conducting interviews simultaneously. Check out the calendly app to invite users to book slots in your calendar – it syncs with your Google calendar and updates both calendars with accurate timezones.
  3. Aim for five
    In his (highly recommended) book Sprint, Jake Knapp quotes user research expert Jakob Nielsen’s findings that “85 percent of the problems were observed after just five people.” So aim for five, and reiterate and re-test if you have time. (This golden number was also confirmed by our team’s Director of Product, UX Researchers, in a number UX Research books and articles, and in talks I recently heard at Generate Conference in London. Long story short — talk to five users!)
  4. Bring a note-taker 
    Invite a teammate to join the interview as the notetaker, to allow you to focus on asking questions and to watch how users interact. It’s challenging and risky to try to take notes and ask questions, and watch interactions at the same time. Side benefit: having notes taken live will save time transcribing recordings afterwords (though I’d still strongly recommend keeping a recording on file just in case you want to go back and review certain parts of the session).
  5. Install all the things, and be ready to troubleshoot
    Have Skype and Google Hangouts, or another screen-share app installed. Have a virtual phone and/or sit near a real phone just in case the audio cuts out. Also, try to become familiar with the toggles within the apps you’re using, so that you can troubleshoot live with the user to fix basic audio and screen-sharing issues.
  6. Do a dry run with coworkers
    While co-workers feedback does not count as part of your user test, doing a dry run with them can help you setup your tools, practice the flow of questions and fix minor details. This is a low-risk way of helping you look like a pro when you reach out to your real users.
  7. Set the scene
    Starting interviews with a few minutes for a casual warm-up chat can really help people relax. It’s also important to clearly state what prototype you’ll be sharing (if any), what kind of feedback you’re looking for. If you’re testing a prototype or flow, it’s supremely helpful to ask your user to narrate their thoughts out loud throughout the session.
  8. Use stories to avoid biasing questions
    Framing prompts as stories or scenarios can help your user think about their approach to a task, and can get you more interesting feedback. For example, to test the discoverability of a button like ‘Add staff’ I might ask “Imagine that you have just hired a new employee. How would you invite that person from this page?” Note that I specifically avoided using the name of the button, or any keywords in that button (add or staff) so that my users wouldn’t be scanning the page for any particular text.
  9. Share and document the footage as a team
    User research is valuable insight for the whole team, and notes get compiled a whole lot faster if everyone pitches in. Three people on my team typed quotes into a collaborative Google spreadsheet. Since I asked the same questions in every interview, we divided the feedback into columns with certain questions at the top, and the varying responses typed as quotes below. This allowed us to quickly scan one column and see all of the feedback related to a certain feature or aspect of the prototype or flow. (Note: This would have taken me 2–3 hours alone; we did it together in a collaborative google doc in less than 1 hour).

A few interview questions to fall back on

One of the hardest techniques to learn is to avoid asking biased or leading questions. Similarly, asking questions that only allow for a yes or no answer will lose you valuable opportunities to collect insight.

Here are a few open-ended questions to build into your script or keep on-hand during the interview:

  • What do you see on this page/screen?
  • What’s working, or not working, for you here? Why or why not?
  • How would you describe that process? How did it feel?
  • Was that what you expected to see?
  • How does the information on the page seem to you — would you organize it any differently? Why or why not?
  • Overall, how would you rate that experience on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being extremely easy and 10 being extremely challenging. Why?

Want to learn more?

  1. A chapter in Knapp’s Sprint book

There are many more tips and question examples in the Friday section of Knapp’s book on a revolutionary way to kick off new products, Sprint. I highly recommend checking this book out if you want a fast guide to conducting user interviews (and definitely if you also want to learn about running or participating in sprints, of course).

2. A list of tools in Ida’s medium article

Senior UX designer Ida Aalen recently published a medium article Low-budget, low-effort tools for user testing with a list of amazing tools for conducting affordable, fast and effective UX research. The list includes tools for information architecture testing, eye-tracking, heat-mapping and more!


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