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Last updated on 5/18/20

What is usability testing?

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Usability testing involves putting actual products or prototypes in front of users to see how they interact with it, and if it functions as you'd hoped. Both designers and developers can get so caught up inside the design process that it's crucial to see how actual people use and interact with a product, whether it's an app or website. (This all goes back to the idea that "you are not the user.") In observing someone engage with something you've designed, you'll notice areas where users may be confused, and things that can be improved. The good news is that often simple tweaks can have a significant impact. It's a good idea to focus on these easy changes before ever considering a redesign.

Foundations of usability

Usability testing is a way to determine how easy or hard a task is hard for a user, as well as how long it takes, and whether the desired goals are achieved. Through observation it's also possible to determine user satisfaction, as well as moments of distraction or frustration. In not a lot of time you'll be able to determine where to focus energies, and the key areas for improvement becomes clear.

The Nielsen Norman Group presents five qualities of usability

  1. Learnability – how easy is it to accomplish basic tasks?

  2. Efficiency – how fast can tasks be completed?

  3. Memorability – after time away, how easy is it to return to proficiency?

  4. Errors – how many times do users get "stuck" and how do they recover?

  5. Satisfaction – How pleasing is the design and interface to use?


Peter Morville's honeycomb of user experience was created to take the conversation with clients beyond usability and stress the importance of defining priorities.

  • Useful – does your product help people?

  • Usable – is your product easy to use?

  • Desirable – does your product have an emotional pull for users?

  • Findable – can users find what they need?

  • Accessible – can people with disabilities use your product?

  • Credible – can users trust and believe your offer?

  • Valuable – are customers satisfied? Does it advance the mission or bottom line?

Test early, test often

It's never too early to test a product. You can test paper sketches, early wireframes, clickable digital prototypes, coded products that are close to launch, as well as existing products. The longer you wait to test a product, the more it will cost to make changes. Also, when it comes to development, some changes may be too expensive to fix. 

One great way to practice running usability testing is to test on existing products. Not only will you gain practice and experience running tests, you'll get a better understanding about functionality and interactivity of what makes certain apps and websites successful. When building products, you may also want to consider running usability tests on competitor products.

In order to be fully effective, usability tests should be conducted regularly. For some teams and projects this may mean weekly tests, while for others, monthly is sufficient.

When doing usability testing, Usability.gov presents these 4 steps:

  • Evaluate usability

  • Recommend improvements

  • Implement changes

  • Re-test

Throughout this course we'll be looking at different tools and techniques for usability testing. The good news is that anyone can run usability tests from low, to no cost, and you don't need any special tools or equipment.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement