Getting Started with User Testing
What is User Testing?
At a basic level, a user test usually involves a facilitator asking a user to complete a series of tasks (which may or may not be pre-determined) while observing the interaction, noting any problems the user encounters, errors made, and sometimes the amount of time it takes to complete a task. These findings are then fed back into the design and development cycle in order to improve the product or system.
User testing, also sometimes referred to as usability testing, is a technique for evaluating usability, working with an actual or potential user of a product or system.
User testing can be performed on products or systems at any stage of development, from the early stages of design to production systems. It can be helpful to start by performing user tests with paper prototypes and continuing to test more interactive prototypes as a product or system is iterated upon.
What is Essential to a User Test?
Many people think of user tests as requiring sophisticated usability labs with one-way mirrors and recording equipment, with highly detailed tests that take an hour or more to complete, and require even more time to transcribe and understand the results. While there are definitely times where this level of testing is useful, this approach often doesn't justify the return on investment for smaller projects. In fact, you can obtain extremely helpful results, and realize great improvements in your product or service, from usability tests done at a user's desk or in the conference room down the hall.
In "A Practical Guide to Usability Testing" (1990), J. Dumas and J. Redish explain, "While there can be wide variations in where and how you conduct a usability test, every usability test shares these five characteristics:
- The primary goal is to improve the usability of a product. For each test, you also have more specific goals and concerns that you articulate when planning the test.
- The participants represent real users.
- The participants do real tasks.
- You observe and record what participants do and say.
- You analyze the data, diagnose the real problems, and recommend changes to fix those problems."
Creating User Testing Documentation