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User testing: what, why and how?

User testing is a great way to discover problems with your website or app. But how does it work? Why is it such a valuable method? And which type of user testing can you use in which situation? 

How does user testing work?

  • You ask a number of people to perform a number of typical tasks on your website or intranet. Or on a mock-up if you're in the process of building a new one.  
  • The test is performed on an individual basis. So it’s not like a focus group where there's a bunch of people giving you feedback all at once. 
  • The test person should belong to your target group. Ideally, they're existing or potential clients of your services, products or website.  
  • Everything the test person does and says is recorded, so that you and your web team can check and analyze the data afterwards.  
  • Motivate the test person to think aloud. Simply vocalize whatever's going through their head while they're surfing on your site.

Why is user testing more valuable than an expert review?

4 reasons why user testing is more valuable than an expert review or heuristic analysis.

4 reasons why a good usability expert will often recommend to do a user test.

1. Experts don’t know everything

No matter how much expert knowledge and experience you have, you can’t know everything.

You can’t always judge situations perfectly. That’s a lesson I've learnt in more than 15 years as a usability expert. You can read more on that topic in our article 'Experts don't know everything, not even usability experts'.

2. Facts trump opinions

Facts are perfect to do away with opinions.
In a discussion, bring facts as your weapon of choice.

Clients can always dismiss expert advice with the argument "Yeah sure, but that’s just your personal opinion, right?".

User tests reveal facts.

And facts trump opinions any day of the week.

3. Ignoring your own clients is difficult

Or at least, ignoring your own clients is more difficult to do than ignoring expert advice. 

If you have seen with your own eyes that 5 out of 6 people have trouble using the filter navigation in your online shop, there's no way you can't realize this is a problem you have to fix.

4. Convincing and durable proof

A video that shows your customers and potential customers having trouble with your website, cursing your interface? That has immense power. That kind of video will shut up even the most die-hard, ego-tripping know-it-all experts and directors during board meetings. 

Also, you can re-use the recordings at any stage of the project. Whenever that same old discussion rears it's ugly head again, you just whip out that recording: “Remember, this is what we saw during user testing...”.

Keep hammering away on that nail.

Most common types of user testing

1. Moderated user testing

Launching a website without any user testing is like playing russian roulette.

The classic user test set-up is in-person moderated user testing. The moderator sits next to the test person and asks questions. 

This old-school method still has a lot of benefits. Observing the user in person and being able to ask them additional questions based on what they're doing, saying or look like at a certain point, can give you a very deep insight into what's really wrong with a website. 

To me, that is priceless information. And it can't be replicated by any other method. There are some things you simply can't get out of mouse clicks and scroll maps.  

Having said this, good moderating skills are obviously key in moderated user testing. The way the moderator asks the questions and even just the way she sits or looks at the user, can heavily influence your test results. 

2. Remote moderated user testing

The biggest disadvantage of the 'classic' in person user test is that your test participants either have to come to you or you have to go to them. And time is simply money.

Remote moderated user testing is an excellent alternative for in-person user testing.

With remote user tests, the moderator and test participant can be wherever they want to be, as look as they're looking at the same website on some screen or other. With screen sharing software that’s a piece of cake nowadays.

If your user has a webcam, you can also see their face. Which makes it a good alternative for in-person moderated user testing.

User testing with GoToMeeting
We use GoToMeeting for remote moderated user testing. The moderator can see the user’s screen, as well as their face. This random test person is not very happy with KBC Bank’s homepage.

We often do remote moderated testing if we need test participants from different countries. It's also a great solution if you only want to test something small: one particular page or step in a process. 

3. Remote unmoderated user testing

As you probably already guessed, there is no moderator in this type of testing. The test participant surfs to a site and reads the tasks from the screen.

There are 2 main variations of remote unmoderated user testing where you have footage of the test participant's action on your website as well as feedback:

  • Recorded image and sound
    Users are asked (just once) to think out loud.
    To be fair, I'm not a big fan of this method. It relates to classic user testing like sardines to caviar. Many test participants you get with these tools look and sound as if they're semi-professional test users. You also hardly have any control over the quality of the selection of your user panel. Are the testers really part of your target audience? As I said, not my preferred type of user testing.
     
  • Recorded mouse movements and time
    In this method, you don't see the test participant and you don't hear them. They see the task on the screen, perform the task and fill out a questionnaire to give additional feedback after each task. It can be a useful and quick way to collect input from a large group of people. Our favorite tool is Loop11

And what about eye tracking?

We’ll discuss eye tracking in a separate article. Eye tracking can be very interesting, but it’s all too often misused and abused.

Other user research tools

There are of course lots of other user research tools out there.

I really like HotJar's user session recordings and have found them very valuable in a number of conversion optimization projects we've done.

Fot our information architecture projects, where we often have mock-ups we like to test on, I'm a big fan of Optimal Workshop's screentesting tool Chalkmark
 

Do you have a preference for one user testing method over another?
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

P.S. A clear view of the strengths and weaknesses of your website, intranet or app?

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