Usability testing on the cheap

You’ve built a product. You think it’s ready for real users. How do you find out? You do usability testing. This is a specialized discipline, and there are specialists out there who know what they are doing. You should hire one of them to do usability tests on your product. They will do a much better job than you can, and you will get much better results. But if you can’t, here’s how to do it yourself.

Disclaimer: I’m not a usability engineer, I’m a software engineer. But I’ve been through a fair amount of usability testing, on both sides of the one-way mirrors. I’ve learned from some real usability gurus, like Kara Coyne. So I know a little bit about how it is done. As I said, you should really hire an expert to do this stuff for you. There’s lots of subtlety to doing it right.

Usability testing

Usability testing consists of having sample users use your product, and watching carefully what happens. That’s it. It sounds simple, but there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it.

Why do you need usability testing? Your engineers (or you) may say, “I don’t need a usability test, I’ve been using the software for months. I know exactly what it does.” Your engineers are wrong. Yes, they know what it does. But they have no idea what a typical user will make of it. Precisely because they’ve been using the software for months, they can’t see it as a brand-new user would. Features that seem to be straightforward and obvious can be exposed as confusing user traps with a little usability testing. You need to know about the problems and fix them, and the best way to do it is with usability testing.


The first step in doing usability testing is planning. It’s easy to think that you can send your drinking buddies a URL to try the product, and then ask them what they thought. You won’t get good feedback from them. Much better is to take usability testing seriously and plan ahead.


The typical goal of usability testing is to find out what real users will find easy and hard in using your product. The emphasis is on finding the hard stuff, since that is what you will have to fix.

Here’s the mindset you need to have: imagine a real user of your product. They are trying to use it to accomplish some task. You won’t be there to help them with it. If they can’t do what they want to do, they won’t use your product. It’s that simple. The goal of usability testing is to simulate that user with you watching, so you can identify the bottlenecks and stumbling blocks in your product, and fix them.

Designing the test

The test itself consists of putting a user in front of your product. But what are they going to actually do with it? They’ll be unfamiliar with the product, and in an artificial setting. Don’t make them improvise.

When the test starts, your user won’t know what to do. You need to give them a scenario (why are they looking at your product), and a task (what is it they are trying to do). Then they’ll feel directed and have something specific to do.

Let’s say you’re testing a word processor. Rather than sitting them in front of a blank screen, give them a setting and a task. Saying, “Here’s a document, reproduce it in this word processor” is much better than “OK, go”.

Not only will creating a scenario put your user at ease, it gives you two advantages:

Finding users

Before you can find users for your tests, you need a model of who your real users are. Who is your aimed at? High school students? Business executives? Engineers? Whoever it is, you want your test subjects need to be as close to those real users as possible. Narrowing it down even further, what sort of problems do your real users have that you are going to help them solve? High school students who are struggling with foreign languages? Business executives looking for their next job? Engineers who can’t figure out if their product is usable? Ideally, your test subjects would have those problems too, but that’s a bit much to ask for. You can simulate the problems in the test scenario by asking your users to pretend that they have those problems, or think back to the last time they had them.

Anyone who closely models your target users will do for a test. Natural candidates are friends, since you can ask favors of them. Friends can be problematic, though:

Friends can be good subjects in spite of these factors, and they may be the only people at hand. For any subject, you need to take into account how they are and are not like your target user.

Running the Test

The main thing to do during the test is listen and observe. This is the hardest thing for engineers to do right. The urge to help the user, and to show off your product, is huge. But it is essential to shut up and listen in order to get good results. The goal of the session is not to teach this one user how to use the product. The goal is to find out how a typical user will fare when encountering your product for the first time.

You aren’t there to teach, you are there to learn.

This relationship seems backwards: you are an expert on the product, and the user has never seen it before, they know nothing about it! That is their valuable commodity: innocence. You need to learn how they see your creation without being tainted by your knowledge of it. Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open.

Put the user at ease

When running the test be sure to let your subject know that they are not being tested. People have a natural tendency to think that if they can’t figure out a piece of software, then they are stupid. Not so, especially when the software is unfinished and undergoing usability testing. So be sure to let them know up front that they can do no wrong and that they are not being tested, the software is.

Be nice to your subjects. You are the host, and your user is a guest. They are in an unfamiliar environment looking at an unfamiliar and probably confusing product. Be as charming as you can be.

Being nice can be especially difficult when the test isn’t going well. The user keeps getting stuck on the simplest things. He misreads your carefully crafted prose, misinterprets your beautifully iconic gizmos. He may even laugh when some particularly egregious bug rears its head. Take a deep breath, and be nice. They are doing you a huge favor. Not only are they donating a significant chunk of time to your product’s development, but they are showing you things you couldn’t have found any other way.

What the user does

The user has two things to do during the test. The first is pretty clear: use the product as you have directed them. The second comes less naturally: let you know what they are thinking.

The ideal test subject will narrate their thoughts as they work through the tasks. This is not a comfortable thing for users to do, especially when it comes to the most important parts of the test: the parts where they don’t know how to do what they want, or where they get confused. Try to make them comfortable with the idea of talking as they work. Let them know again that they aren’t being tested.

You’ll have to help the user to keep the stream of consciousness flowing. Questions like, “what are you working on,” “what do you see on the screen,” or “what are you looking for,” can help get them talking again.


The most important thing for you to do is pay attention and know what the user is thinking. As I described above, ask them what they are thinking, what they are looking at.

Watch their face when you can: eyebrows express a lot, surprise, consternation, and so on. Listen to them talk. When do they hesitate? Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. If they are surprised, ask them what they thought would happen. Ask them why they thought that?

It may seem like too much probing, but users interpreting UIs will make lots of mental leaps that they won’t tell you about, even when they are trying to tell you everything going on in their heads. And sometimes a small thing, probed further, can lead to an insight about what you’ve built.


After observing, the most important thing for you to do is to record. Ideally, you’d have a video camera for the whole session. Even better is what the professionals do: they record the screen and the user’s face, so you can see exactly what the user was doing, and how they were reacting to it.

If you can’t video tape, at least take lots of notes. Take down the user’s exact words when you can. Taking notes is hard because there’s no way you’ll be able to get everything down, and you’ll end up asking the user to stop so you can catch up. With video, you never have to worry about missing a step or losing something interesting.

Try to write down everything. Seemingly uninteresting tangents can end at interesting points.

Getting stuck

If the user gets stuck, it’s very tempting to tell them what to do. Not only can you see the solution clearly (“it’s right there!”), but you don’t want them to feel frustrated, and you want to get on with more testing.

But it’s important to find out more about their difficulty. Ask them what they see on the screen. Ask them to tell you what they’re thinking as they look for the solution. An ideal monologue goes something like,

Well, I want to find a way to turn this chunk of text into a quote, but I don’t see anything that looks right. I see a button labeled “B”, maybe that’s for blockquote, no that usually means “bold”. I’m looking over the toolbar, but everything there seems to be about colors and fonts. I want the font italicized because it’s a quote, but I need a quote-maker to do that, I don’t want to italicize it myself...

As the user describes the details of their thought process, you’ll learn a lot about how your UI is being interpreted. When designing the UI, you’ll have made lots of guesses as to how users will attach semantics to everything on the screen. Now you get to hear the mapping being worked out live, in detail. Listen as hard as you can, and let the user work at it for a while, until they find the answer, or they aren’t saying anything interesting any more.

Even once they are completely out of ideas, don’t tell them, “Pull down the Format menu, and select Quote”. Instead, ask them, “did you look in the menus? What did you see there?” or, “I saw you opened the Format menu, what did you find there? Can you tell me about that?” These are compromise questions: you aren’t giving the answer, but you’re directing their attention in the right direction. This lets you get a few more of their thoughts out into the open.

Eventually, you may have to help them out of a dead end. This is OK. You need to understand the situation they’ve created well enough for your needs, and then move on so that you can cover other aspects of the product with your users. You’ll have to strike your own balance between wringing the most out of a situation, and making progress through the test you planned.


At times, the user will turn to you with a direct question. Don’t answer them. Turn the question to your advantage. For example, they may ask, “Will it make a two-column table of contents?” Instead of responding, “Sure, you just go here and here”, you can ask, “Do you want it to?”, or, “How would you think you’d go about doing that?”

The user wants information about the product in front of them, but resist the urge to start selling them on how wonderful it is. Remember you are listening, not talking.


After the test is over, you still have more work to do.

Write up the test sesson as soon as possible. Go over your notes, putting in the bits you remember that you couldn’t scribble down. Fix up the shorthand you resorted to in order to keep up. Clarify the sequences that don’t seem to make sense. Do this as soon as you can, while it is all still fresh in your mind.

Then comes the hard part: interpretation. Once you have done a few sessions, you’ll have some data points. You need to decide what to do with the data. Some of what you discover in the tests will be easily translatable into product changes that are clear improvements. Some will be so obvious, you’ll wonder how you could have missed them.

Others will not be so clear, for a few reasons:

The best thing you can do with the test results is to write up recommendations. The session notes are interesting, but it is hard to pick out specific changes from them. Do that work, and make a list that your team can work from.

Keep in mind: most of your test results have to be taken with (at least one) grain of salt. Usability tests are designed to simulate real users using your product, but there are many inaccuracies:

But these are unavoidable limitations. Do what you can in spite of them.

What next

As I mentioned above, I’m not a usability expert, I’m a software engineer. This is how I’ve tested for usability problems on my own projects, and I’ve found it valuable. My using this approach in a disciplined realistic way, you can find problems and fix them.

See also


Sylvain Galineau 10:23 AM on 8 Feb 2006
Video and two-way mirrors are cool if you have them; there are cheaper ways.
Re: Sylvain's reference to Joel's article.

Joel's link to Morae is broken. It's here.
One thing worth mentioning about finding users is the concept of user persona. These are a way to define who your real users are -- or at least who you plan for them to be. They aren't real people but often personas are given names to make them easy to reference. Personas can be overused but they can be helpful for making design decisions. You may have heard about the Mort, Elvis and Einstein personas used by the Visual Studio team.
First thing you need to do is imagine you are sitting in front of an apple machine, then learn from the beauty of its hardware (down to the stainless steel recessed allen screws) and then from the refreshing ways of most of the os-x bundled applications

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