Get stakeholders onboard with user research by writing usability tasks in Excel

Tom Smee
WMCA Digital and Data
5 min readMar 5, 2021

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If you are:

  • struggling to explain the value of usability tasks to your project stakeholders (e.g. designers, project managers or product managers)
  • writing usability tasks in Word and finding it difficult to see where tasks begin or start
  • a small research team, or flying solo, and you don’t have the budget for fancy documentation tools

… then try documenting your usability tasks in Excel.

It’s not the sexiest of suggestions and you might have something shinier in your toolkit. But if, like me, you are new to user research and don’t know all the fancy tools inside out, then boring old Excel can help.

I’m a user researcher at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). We’re pretty big on user-centred design.

A few weeks ago, I was writing a plan for an iteration of moderated usability testing. I wanted to share the plan with project stakeholders, so the research detail needed to be clear.

Good research should be transparent

Transparency is key to our research culture at the WMCA. By documenting and sharing my usability test plan, project stakeholders can:

  • see what I am planning to test and why I want to test it
  • question and query whether my research goals align to their goals
  • sign-off my research i.e. they see the value in it and the potential insights

I chose to document the test plan in Microsoft Word because I assumed everyone would be familiar with it . After adding key research information like Assumptions and Research Goals, I started to add Tasks.

After an hour or so I got lost in headings, lists, unequal spacing between paragraphs. I was struggling to understand the flow of the task and which questions related to which task. I knew that stakeholders would have the same problem.

Usability tasks set out in a Microsoft Word document with headings and lists
Usability tasks set out in a Microsoft Word document with headings and lists

I could not understand the flow of the task and which questions related to which task. I knew that stakeholders would have the same problem.

Tip: If you are struggling to make sense of a report or presentation, your stakeholders probably feel same way.

Present task details in the right format

After struggling with old-fashioned paragraphs and lists, I opted for a new format. I started to structure the tasks in a table — in Microsoft Word.

It was very late and that is the only reason I can find for thinking this was a good idea. Have you ever tried to move a table in Word? What should be a simple interaction will soon have you throwing your device in the road.

I made columns for the common aspects of each task, such as Scenarios, Tasks and Questions. This made the flow of the test and the usability tasks a lot clearer.

Task Numbers would make usability activities easy to follow. Dedicated columns for Scenario, Task and Questions would describe what the user was being asked to do. The Assumption column would please stakeholders who asked ‘But why are you asking the user to do this?’. I’d found the solution, right?

Usability tasks squeezed into a table inside a landscape Microsoft Word document
Usability tasks squeezed into a table inside a landscape Microsoft Word document

Wrong! I solved some problems, but I was quickly heading down another rabbit hole.

Table columns made information more digestible. But the number of columns and required detail rendered my table too large for the traditional A4. Even in landscape, stakeholders wouldn’t be able to see it for the masterpiece that it was.

Tip: Present the right information at the right time and in the right format.

Choose the right tool for the job

At 10.37pm, after another failed attempt at improving the ‘usability’ of my usability test plan, it hit me!

Microsoft Word is no match for Excel when it comes to displaying tables. Why force a detailed table into a fixed-size document when Microsoft Excel exists? That’s exactly what Excel is for — or at least, that’s how I saw it in the eleventh hour.

I recreated the same table in Excel and the flow of the usability test became clear — for real this time!

Usability tasks formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel with column headings for important data
Usability tasks formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel with column headings for important data

How to write usability tasks in Excel

If you think that writing usability tasks in Excel could help stakeholders understand your test plan, follow these steps:

  1. Add a tab (sheet) for each device you are testing on. You only need to do this if you are setting different tasks for the different devices.
  2. Add relevant columns to each tab. For me, these columns were:

Task Number: Pretty simple. Increment the numbers as you add more tasks to help you understand how big your test is and to gauge user progress.

Prototype version: If you are testing many prototypes, this column will help you understand the different task sets.

Section: This is useful if the prototype you are testing has many sections e.g. Home, Products & Contact Us.

Prototype Page: Linking to the design helps stakeholders visualise the design each task will test.

Scenario: Qualitative usability tasks can benefit from a scenario. These give context and can get users in the right frame of mind to complete the task. Keep scenarios short and sweet. It isn’t a character development exercise.

Task: What do you actually want users to do i.e. Show me how you would add a product to your cart, and then view the items in your cart.

Successful paths: What does success look like for this task? I use the format of Page > Action > Page to inform stakeholders what users will need to do to complete this task. This might look like Product page > User navigates to product and clicks trolley icon > User clicks the cart icon > Shopping Cart.

Questions: Questions for test participants are usually based on the assumptions you are testing and the tasks users will complete. Bear in mind that for moderated usability tests, you can’t be sure how a user might behave. Prepare to let some of your questions go un-asked, and also for organic questions to crop up.

Assumptions: Time is precious in a moderated usability test. Only set tasks that test the assumptions you have about your design. Write your assumptions in this column so stakeholders can see that each task is there for a valid reason.

3. Continue adding new rows until all your tasks are in the table

4. Share with your stakeholders and await applause*

  • There probably won’t be any applause, but at least you didn’t share the Word document, and for that, I salute you.

Now if we can use Excel to document usability tasks, how else can this ‘boring’ tool assist user research. Can we capture observations on usability tests in Excel, or perhaps use it to calculate System Usability Score of our beta services?

Let me know how you get on in the comments!

This article was published as part of #ServicesWeek 2021, a cross-organisational UK public sector event series.

You can also read more of blogs from our team on the WMCA Digital and Data Medium publication.

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Tom Smee
WMCA Digital and Data

UX Researcher for local government. Fail fast to learn fast.