When you’re building a website or web application, there are a lot of factors you need to keep in mind. You need a design that looks good, you need to provide a product that does what it claims to do, and a website that is easy to navigate. It takes a lot of time, hard work, and of course, resources to get the job done.

Web testing is an unavoidable part of the process to ensure you have a product that not only works, but is functioning to the best of its abilities. And, usability testing is no exception.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is usability?

Usability in simple terms means: Is your website or application easy to use? This refers to the ease at which an average person can use your website to carry out specific defined goals or actions.

Most usability experts claim that usability is comprised of the following five components:

  1. Learnability: Can users figure out how to do basic tasks the first time they visit your website or web application?
  2. Efficiency: Once users are familiar with your design, how fast can they complete tasks?
  3. Memorability: Can a user come back to your site after a period of not using it – are they able to start using it again right away, or do they have to start learning all over?
  4. Errors: How many mistakes do your users make, how serious are they, and how do they recover from them?
  5. Satisfaction: Are your users happy with the overall design?

Usability testing is a technique used to test a system or design in a controlled environment by measuring these five components, so that you can track weaknesses or strengths in real time with real users.

What’s the big deal with testing usability?

There are a few reasons why usability testing is important for your product or business.

First of all, it can help you improve visitor retention. As many as 1 in 3 visitors visit your homepage, and then, leave it immediately and never return. This could be caused by a variety of issues such as slow load time or a confusing design, but usability testing can help you to pinpoint the cause for high bounce rates.

You’ll also be able to figure out where the biggest weaknesses are on your website. Usability testing can help reveal faults you didn’t know existed. By fixing these problems, you’ll be able to improve your understanding of your customers and as a result, be able to provide a better overall experience.

Finally, by keeping track of the previously mentioned components, you’ll be able to improve your website or web application and make it more user-friendly. This will offer you an edge over your competitors and improve your overall bottom-line benefits.

How do I test for usability?

There are several different usability testing methods, and we’ve listed the main testing methods below:

  • Hallway testing – Using random people to test who are not trained in website testing.
  • Remote usability testing – Testing usability with people from different countries and time zones.
  • Expert review – Having an expert in the field evaluate your website’s usability.
  • Paper prototype – Using paper-prototypes to undertake tasks before any code is written. This method is extremely cost-effective for those on a tight budget.
  • Questionnaire and interviews – Use of questionnaires and interviews to collect data about your tests.
  • DIY walk-through – You create your own testing scenario and walk yourself through it, just like a user would.

For more about testing methods and learning to create tests, we suggest checking out the following articles:

Usability Testing Demystified  by Dana Chisnell – A List Apart

Improving Your Website Usability Tests by Damian Rees – Smashing Magazine

Usability Testing Myths by Rolf Molich – Net Magazine

A few last words…

Usability and user experience are not the same thing. Usability refers to whether or not a user can complete a set of specific actions without experiencing any problems. User experience, which is equally important, is concerned with how that user felt about their experience using the website or application.

Deciding when you’ll test will be dependent on your team, the circumstances under which you are asked to carry out your tests (i.e. you are seeing an anomaly v.s. a client asking you for specific information), and the budget you are working with.

Although usability guru Jakob Nielsen and Comparative Usability Evaluation studies claim that 5 users are enough to catch 85% of the usability problems in most products, we are not necessarily completely sold on this idea from personal experience. 5 users may be sufficient to drive a testing cycle, but we treat usability testing as a “the more, the better” process. If you have the resources, we suggest pushing the numbers up. Testing like this will reveal more problems, and you’ll stand a stronger chance of building a better product.

And finally, make sure you encourage yourself and your team to take steps to prevent usability issues from the beginning. It’s possible to avoid a lot of problems by banking on the knowledge of your developers and your designers. Since usability testing can be very expensive, take the necessary steps to make sure that the basic rules of usability are being followed. You won’t regret it!

Do you practice usability testing on all your projects? 

Share your experiences here or on Facebook. Or, tweet us directly @testomatocom.