Web site usability tests are easy to run and they don’t have to be perfect for you to learn a lot from them. The important thing is just to do them on a regular basis so that you can observe user behavior on your site.
Every time I run one I learn new things about what works and what doesn’t on our site. I also learn how I can improve the way I conduct our testing.
Here are some things I’ve learned that you might find useful:
h3. 1. Set up the Test Computer and Browser Beforehand
Make sure the screen resolution is set to a commonly used size. Clear the browser cache, turn off auto complete, delete cookies and history, and generally make sure that it is set up to be as standard as possible.
h3. 2. Go Back to the Home Page After Each Task
This provides you with a common baseline to compare multiple users. Reset the browser each time so that there are no visual cues to guide the user that wouldn’t be present normally if they visited your site.
h3. 3. Begin by Setting the User at Ease
Make sure that they understand that you are testing the site and not them. Here’s what we put in our instructions regarding this issue:
bq. Let the user know that we are testing the system, and not the user. There is no wrong or right way to do a task. If a user gets lost, that is ok, just have them notify the test facilitator. Some actions will not be able to be completed all the way – it’s the process that we are looking at.
h3. 4. Encourage the User to Speak Their Thoughts
This will enable you to record their thought process as well as where they clicked. Keep pressing this point during the test as most people will be reluctant to be as vocal as you want them to be.
If they are looking around the page, ask them what they are looking for, what are they thinking, etc. The more the user can open up the better you will be able to understand their behavior.
h3. 5. Take Your Time
Users will typically feel compelled to complete the tasks quickly. Encourage them to take their time and to complete the task as far as they are able to.
If a user seems like they have given up on a task too quickly, I will often question them in order to encourage them to explore further and complete the task.
h3. 6. Run Each Test With Two People
If you’re not recording the test on video, you’ll need one person to run the test and one to take notes. It’s simply not possible to do both yourself – you’ll miss important information and will be exhausted by the end of it.
h3. 7. Don’t Lead the User
Avoid asking questions or presenting tasks in a way that direct the user toward a particular action. It’s all too easy to write tasks that are leading this so really wordsmith your script before the test to make sure that it doesn’t guide users in any way.
h3. 8. Lead the User When You Have to
If a user has become lost, give them a nudge in the right direction. It’s better to have a user complete a task, albeit with a bit of guidance, than for them to give up too soon and provide you with no information. Just make sure you record this fact.
h3. 9. Be Positive
Most people find computers and the internet pretty daunting so it’s important that you keep them at ease during the test. Even if they end of way off the mark for a test, keep them unaware of this or they will think that they have somehow ‘failed’.
Whatever they do and wherever they end up, say things like “okay, good, let’s move on to the next task”. Don’t provide them with any opportunity to think that they are being judged or that anything they do is ‘stupid’.
h3. 10. Involve Your Whole Team
You can’t beat watching someone use your site to see where the pain points are. Usability testing is not something that the usability person, the producer, the manager or anyone else should be doing by themselves.
Everyone on the team should be involved in these sessions, even if it is just to observe. This will cut down on long discussions (arguments) when you review the results and encourages everyone to always keep their work focused on the user.
h3. Parting Thoughts
Of course, there are many other tips and strategies for running usability tests. These are just some of my own. Mark Hurst has a very different take on “how to run usability tests”:http://www.goodexperience.com/blog/archives/2003_10.php#000021. Although I haven’t tried this method I am keen to as I see the logic in what he is suggesting.
Whatever strategy you take when it comes to usability testing the most important one is just to get out there and do it.