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User testing

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What is it?

User testing is participative, user-based evaluation of a paper prototope, beta release or other form of software prototype, all the way up to a fully functioning application.

During such a user testing session, one or more test users, ideally in a test suite of some kind, perform a series of intensely facilitated user journeys.


Good practice for user testing is to have one facilitator, and one (or more) hidden observer(s). Often, the most enlightening findings surface when observers and facilitators compare notes after a session.

The paper prototype may comprise wireframes, storyboards or some other klind of diagrammed representation. There may be some form of limited interactivity (e.g. if the wireframes are clickable PDFs shown on a screen). Alterntively, the system being tested may be fully functioning - qua a beta release - or an alpha release that the public have been using for som time already.

What's it for?

User evaluation is most commonly used to gather qualitative data about - as well as to identify usability problems with - a proposed new system or service.

How to do user testing
User testing is not difficult or complicated. But it is fundamentally about user comfort and user observation.

User comfort
User testing is all about making a user feel as comfortable and at ease as possible, so that they behave (and use the site being tested) in as normal a fashion as possible. Key things to remember here are:

  • Be welcoming - and non-threatening. Smile. Offer the user a drink and put them at ease. Don't hurry either yourself or the user. Adapt yourself and the environment to the speed with which the user feels comfortable. Don't sit them down at the computer immediately. Use a sofa or other breakout space first
  • Explain yourself clearly - take the opportunity to explain to the user why they are here and how valuable their opinion will be. Issue clear instructions on precisely what will happen
  • Site is being tested, not the user - explain very clearly that they are not being tested in any pejorative sense. There is no right or wrong for them. What is being tested is the site.

User observation
Key things to remember here are:

  • Don't judge - your job is to gather data, not to comment or express opinions. Be non-committal if the user asks you for a value judgement on any aspect of their performance
  • Help but don't interfere - you need to be on hand to answer questions and provide guidance, but you should not be issuing a constant stream of instructions. Let the user work, discover and report at their own pace
  • Encourage the user to talk - and listen carefully as they work: a running commentary on their motivations, hesitations, thoughts and decisions as they navigate around, and attempt to execute a scenario, is priceless data. Value it. Record it.

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