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November 11, 2022

How to conduct Usability Tests and Why we do it

Lisa Panke



UX/UI Designer & Webflow Developer
Buffalo, NY

In our last blog of this series, you learned about our wireframe and prototyping process. For the Software Residency Application, we built a prototype specifically for our mentors.

Mentors are employees of ZEAL who support our residents at companies like ZEAL, Finetune, and Reviewed. They need to evaluate their residents in the Residency App on a regular basis and do that in the most efficient way possible.

The fact that we had our target group in-house allowed us to conduct usability tests, and get quick but invaluable feedback on our designs.

Why you should test your designs

You can base your designs on existing patterns and “steal like an artist” from other successful products, but that doesn’t mean that those designs will work for your target audience. Every user group has its own pain points and needs, and it’s our job as designers to meet those needs the best that we can.

Talking to users upfront and validating our designs in a one-on-one conversation ensures that we get to the root of their struggles. So, if you have the budget and time to conduct usability tests, what are you waiting for? You don’t? Push for it!

How many users do I need for usability testing?

To get feedback on your designs, you won’t need as many participants as for surveys or interviews. Three to five participants should do the trick and most of the time you will hear issues repeating themselves. Usually, after 2-3 tests, you will see the main issues and know what to prioritize.

Tip: It can be tempting to adjust the prototype after each test to remove issues and have a more pleasant experience with the next participant. We recommend leaving your prototype as it is. The amount of users who notice the same issue is valuable and gives you an indication of severity.

How to recruit participants?

Finding participants can be challenging. For the Residency App, we had all our participants in-house and just needed to give them a heads-up. When that is not the case, you can outsource your usability tests on platforms like PingPong or Usability Hub.

Also, look within your own network. Post on social media channels or ask people you know. Sometimes, an incentive like a voucher can help to convince people if needed.

Tip: Invite participants to the usability test in person or with a personal email. Refrain from mass-emailing and sending out Calendly links to schedule a slot. Doing so will increase the chances for your participants to show up at the agreed time.

How do I conduct usability tests?

After greeting your testers and making them feel welcome, it is important to set the stage, which you can do with the help of a test script. That script should explain to the user that you are testing a prototype and not them, that you invite them to think out loud and describe what they are doing and feeling during the test, and that they can’t do or say anything wrong.

Tip: Sometimes, it helps to share with the user that you haven’t created the prototype yourself (even if you did) and that they shouldn’t worry about hurting your feelings. That way you will get the most truthful feedback, which will help you to improve your designs.

During the test, as we mentioned in our blog post How to Create Wireframes and Prototypes, give participants 2-3 scenarios with related tasks. Try not to interrupt, hold space for participants to elaborate on their thoughts, and refrain from leading them in any way. I know, easier said than done.

Tip: Ask your participants after each task how easy or difficult it was to complete it. Provide them a scale from 1 (very easy) to 10 (very difficult). These insights will help you to learn about pain points, which haven’t come up during the task.

Preparation for the usability test

What do I do with the results?

We like to use severity ratings when it comes to analyzing usability test results. By using this technique, we get insights into the frequency with which the problem occurred, the impact of the problem, and the persistence of the problem. Did this issue only appear once or was it mentioned repeatedly?

For the Residency App, we rated the severity of all issues according to these definitions:

0 = I disagree that this is a usability problem at all
1 = Cosmetic problem only: need not be fixed unless extra time is available on the project
2 = Minor usability problem: fixing this should be given low priority
3 = Major usability problem: important to fix, so should be given high priority
4 = Usability catastrophe: imperative to fix this before the product can be released

However, giving issues severity scores didn’t show us how much effort it would take to fix an issue. That’s why we introduced an effort score, that we as designers set:

0 = No change required
1 = Cosmetic problem - Easy Fix
2 = Minor Effort
3 = Major Effort

Excerpt of the usability test results from the Residency App

3 out of 4 users were unsure what the last column in the evaluation table meant. This issue was critical (priority score: 4), but took not a lot of effort to fix (effort score: 1).

The combination of these two scores allowed us to fix a majority of issues for a second prototype, which we can then use to conduct another test later on.

Iteration on Residency App before/after usability test

Voilà, a Peek into ZEAL’s Design Process

We hope you enjoyed this series about ZEAL’s design process. Design is not simply about splashing some colors on a screen, but more so about finding solutions to problems that users encounter on a daily basis.

Would you like to explore this process for one of your products? Then Let's Talk.

Mic Drop

Read the complete series

  1. Putting Together the Design Puzzle
  2. How to understand users with User Research?
  3. How to synthesize research with Affinity Mapping
  4. How to Create an Application Map
  5. How to Create UI Flows
  6. How to Write Great User Stories
  7. How to Create Wireframes and Prototypes
  8. How to conduct Usability Tests and Why we do it

These articles have been written in collaboration with Sunjay Armstead.

Picture from Silicon Valley (HB0), Season 2, Episode 6, "Homicide"​

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