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Web site usability testing: recommended procedures
Usability testing of web sites is:
A usability test is:
Facilitator: the person who is guiding the user through the test, and taking notes.
When to test
Testing little and often is far more valuable and cost effective than doing one whopping big usability test of an entire site when it is almost finished. ("Don't Make me Think" Steve Krug, ISBN 0-7897-2310-7, p. 146-147.)
Suitable times for testing:
What and why are you testing?
Know what you hope to discover each time you test.
With all tests you want to discover whether the user:
In a general test you want to know:
In a specific test you might want to know, for example:
How long is a usability test?
Tests range from 5 minutes (for a single page design) to 1 hour (for a general response to a whole site or new design).
Most people (including you) will be tired after 1 hour's testing.
Users should be outsiders
Finding users need not be a problem. Ask anyone who is:
Students. Neighbours. Volunteers. Friends. People in the same building but a different company.
(In a full-blown, traditional usability test, a usability consultant would select members of the web site's target audience. This requires great effort, and the rewards are comparatively small.)
Where to test
Ideally, run tests in the user's home or work place. Benefits:
If it's not practical to test on the user's home territory, test at your place of work. Essential: a private room, two chairs, a clipboard and a computer.
Are you connected to the Internet by cable, ADSL? Then arrange for your test computer to use a dial-up modem. That's how 90% of users probably access your web site.
(Optional: a webcam or camcorder enables observers to watch the computer screen and hear the user's comments from another room. Problem is, with a web cam, the test immediately becomes a big deal. This is counterproductive, because the ideal is to test little and often.)
Prepare a script
A script is part of your own quality assurance system: it helps ensure that you follow procedures, and that you are asking each user to do the same task.
Items on the script:
Plan how you will take notes
What is your preferred style of note taking? What would make it easier?
To save time you can use abbreviations when noting occasions when the user hesitates, looks worried, misunderstands, looks frustrated or gives up.
Test the script
It's an excellent idea to test your script with a colleague acting as the user.
One problem with usability testing is that outsiders may be too polite and eager to please. You can get useful feedback about your own facilitation style from a colleague.
After testing, ask your colleague about the experience. For example, did the colleague feel hustled or hurried or controlled by you? Did the test run smoothly? Did you set tasks in the right order, or the right way? How could you improve your manner?
Now start the testSit the user down and run through the first part of your script.
Then turn on the computer and show the first web page you're testing. Start the test.
Notice the user's behaviour, and note every occasion the user:
Facilitation style: bite your lip
You have an agenda, certainly: but you are only an observer. Watch the user do what comes naturally. Don't help.
The whole point of the test is to see what users do alone, without you helping.
Much of the time you'll just be probing, and encouraging the user to say what they're doing and thinking.
Use everyday language, not in-house jargon, unless you are testing an intranet.
Keep calm: you want the user to find faults! Don't take it personally.
Suspend judgement: don't even think about solving the problems at this stage.
Keep encouraging the user to think aloud.
Repeat: don't help! Don't think for the user. Explain that you can't answer questions during the test, because it's a test of how people use the site without you. But you'll answer them later if you can.
Enjoy the job.
Write everything down. If a task is part of the test, note the time it takes each user.
Don't interfere or ask leading questions.
Check your original task list as you go.
Report on test
Write a 1-2 page report simply noting each problem the user found. Do it immediately while the test is fresh in your mind.
Optional: mark each problem as serious, less serious, or preference. ('Preference' means matters of opinion, such as whether the colours are pretty. Preferences don't affect usability.)
Recommend solutions only if you are required to do so. Clearly differentiate your recommendations from your observations.
Give your report to the appropriate person or group: e.g. the owner or web development team. Don't delay.
Decide on action
Now you may need to meet with the web development team. Discuss the problems, and decide which ones are easy and cheap to fix, and which need further investigation.
Carry on testing
You'll get better if you keep practising! Remember, for cost-effective results, test little and often.
But just because you are experienced, don't be tempted to speed up the test or put words into the users' mouths. They are the experts on their own experience: not you.
The image "Boy holding whitebait " is © Kirby Wright: email: firstname.lastname@example.org.