What is usability testing? UX Question #30

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Dwight from Baltimore, Maryland asks: what is usability testing?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Dwight. This is UX Question number 30 and I am Ben Judy.

What is usability testing? Well, it’s simply observing real people using your product or service so you can gain insight into what’s working well for them and what isn’t. Then you can improve the design so the experience is more efficient and enjoyable.

UX work is intrinsically linked with usability testing. In fact, a strong argument could be made that usability testing is the essential UX design activity.

I began my career as a web designer, basically creating mockups and coding web pages that I would inflict on the general public without any sort of testing to see if my designs were easy to use. I just assumed or hoped that they would be.

Then I joined a company that had a robust UX team and a usability testing lab, and usability analysts. Working in the lab, running usability tests, I observed what actually happened when real people tried to use what I had designed.

That’s when the light bulb went on over my head about UX. If you’re not actually watching people use the software you designed, I’m not sure you’re actually doing UX design at all.

There are many ways to conduct a usability test. You can do it moderated or unmoderated. You can facilitate a test in-person with users, or remotely through software tools. There are a number of good software platforms and services you can use to set up and conduct and analyze usability tests. You can craft a highly structured, rigorously task-based study, or you can be more casual about it and just watch people naturally use your product and make observations.

The key principle is: you’re not testing the users. You’re testing your designs to determine where they fall short in meeting the needs of your users.

It may be helpful to consider the difference between usability testing and QA testing. QA or “Quality Assurance” testing identifies technical issues or functional problems. QA testing asks, is the software working as designed?

Usability testing should happen prior to QA testing, asking the question, “where does this design need to be improved to support a better user experience?” Does it meet users’ expectations? How do they feel about it?

A common reason businesses might skip usability testing is because they think it’s too expensive. To which I ask: how expensive is it to ship software with a poor user experience? And how much money could you make if your design was so user friendly that it gave you a clear competitive advantage?

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: Why are UX designers so sensitive?

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