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What is Usability Testing and Why is it Useful?

The best way to tailor your website experience is to hear directly from your users. Usability testing provides invaluable insight into how you can create a meaningful human-centered approach to your digital products.

What is Usability Testing Anyway?

Some people refer to usability testing as “user testing,” but there is a good reason to refer to it as usability testing instead. We’re testing the usability of the site (how usable is it for people), we’re not testing the users. If the user is unable to successfully pass a task, we mark that as a failure for the website, not for the user. This is important to make clear to your test participants, as we don’t want them to feel that they’re being tested and that there is a correct answer. It’s ok to tell them that at the start by saying “there are no right or wrong answers here, so please answer freely.”

The Nitty-Gritty of Usability Testing

Let’s do a quick overview of what usability testing is by using an example. Say we’re working with a nonprofit organization whose mission it is to improve the quality of youth education programming in the communities they work with with the intended outcome of kids improving their chances of getting a good job. A key part of this mission is to disseminate best practices, case studies, and research to local groups who work directly with youth. The organization’s website is crucial for organizing and disseminating this content, and one of the markers of success for this organization is that the resources get high page traffic and downloads. However, they’re finding that these indicators aren’t as high as they want them to be, and they don’t know why. 

Enter Usability testing. 

Usability testing is a research method to get at how users navigate and use a digital product, in this case, a website. During the testing, we ask users to complete tasks, and then watch their behavior as they try to complete that task. This helps us get insights into how well the website is achieving its goals.

For our example, we could ask a test participant “From the homepage, find a case study about a youth education program in the U.S. and show me how you would download it.” 

A number of things could happen in this scenario, such as: 

  1. The participant clicks on “Resources” from the main navigation, filters by country in the listing, clicks on a resource, and points out the download button. This would be considered a success. 
  2. The participant scrolls around the homepage, finds a featured Resource on the page, clicks on it, and points out the download button. This would also be considered a success.  
  3. The user clicks on some other item in the main navigation and goes down a rabbit hole in that section, ultimately unable to find a resource. This would be considered a failure.

If we see that a lot of users are going down path 3 or taking an unreasonably long time trying to find the resource, then we know that there is something that needs to be improved on the website. For example, the terminology isn’t clear in the main navigation, or people’s mental models don’t match the way the content is organized, or the download button isn’t in a clear location on the resource page. 

Part of the test would be asking them to talk through their thought process as they are navigating the website or making decisions about what to do next. We would also ask quite a few follow-up questions at the end about what they liked or what could be improved. This gives us rich data to determine why they experienced an issue and how it could potentially be improved.

Why Usability Tests are Useful

As designers, we create experiences that follow best practices, but we ourselves do not always represent our end-users. While we do our best to put ourselves into the shoes of our users and imagine how they would use our sites, we are not (usually) our users. 

As an industry, we follow best practices and standards, which have largely shaped how users interact with digital platforms. However, digital trends are constantly changing as technological capabilities evolve. As designers who contribute to these trends, we must always remember the value of testing and iterating. Who better to tell us the effectiveness of our designs than our users themselves?

If a usability test shows that users are having trouble finding and downloading a particular resource that could really improve their programming, then we know that we can improve on it. And if that means more people are downloading and using this resource, then they are having more impact in their work. Ultimately, this is what it’s all about—making intentional strategic choices on the website that have a positive impact on people in the world.

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