Usability testing best practices

Usability testing is a UX Research practice that tests a product or prototype with target users, gathering feedback on functionality, design, and intuitiveness. Here at Nimbl, usability testing is a tool that allows us to prioritize the voice and needs of the user. It eliminates the guessing game that tends to happen when designing, and leads to a more agreeable, productive client relationship. By gathering qualitative and quantitative data directly from users, we can base our decisions solely on what we know users want, rather than debating and iterating designs based on assumptions. By centering UX Research in our process, we prioritize efficient, effective solutioning that leads to the best possible results.

If you believe usability testing will bring value to your project, be sure to approach the process strategically. Usability testing is only effective when you maintain best practices in your planning, conducting, and synthesizing of research. Here, you can find advice on how to approach this process and get the best results, including:

  • Preparing for the Interviews
  • Conducting the Interview
  • Notetaking & Direct Quotes

Preparing for the Interviews

When you decide to conduct usability testing, the most important step is to prepare for the process. Your team should write an interview script for your testing sessions, define your roles, decide how to document and synthesize your findings, and have a plan for how to deliver your results. In the past, I’ve had to do repeat work to compensate for a project that wasn’t planned well. For example, if you’re using a UX Research tool for synthesis, consider how to import your notes into the platform. (I’ve had to manually transfer notes that were handwritten, or typed in a word doc, because the synthesis process was undecided when interviews started, and the documentation was random. Every step of this process needs to be intentional, otherwise you risk having to do the same work twice.)

Here are some tips for how to plan for the most effective usability testing process.

Plan with your deliverables in mind

The very first step of your usability testing process should be to plan. Consider the following questions when you’re planning your usability testing:

  1. Can you record your testing sessions?
  2. In what format would you like to take notes?
  3. What environment will you be testing in? (In person? Remote? Etc.)
  4. How will you synthesize your notes and data? On what platform?
  5. How do you plan to deliver your research findings?
  6. Who are you delivering your findings to?

You should always approach usability testing with the end in mind. Having an effective plan in place that considers questions like these will help you work as efficiently as possible and will keep your team on the same page.

Write a Test Script

When preparing for usability testing, writing a script is a crucial step. Your script acts as an outline for the interview, and a reference for strategically written, open-ended questions. Remember that a script does not have to be rigidly followed. It simply allows you to think through how you’d like a test to flow and is a guide to be referenced when conducting interviews.

In projects where you’re working with clients, script writing can be collaborative. Your team should work closely with your client to ensure you have clearly defined goals that are effectively addressed in your script. Including a client in the planning process can lead to the most effective test results. Just remember that the language of UX practices is not always known. It’s important that you guide your client through the process, communicating why these best practices are so valuable.

There are four things to consider when writing a Usability Test Script: The problems and goals you’d like to address, the user flow, and your documentation strategy.

Consider these 4 questions:

  1. What are the main problems or goals you’d like to be addressed in this research?
    Your test script should address each of these things. Come into your usability testing with clear intention. Otherwise, your time may be wasted.
  2. In what order would you like users to move through your interface?
    Your script should follow the desired user flow. This is important so that users give you focused feedback, and so that your notetakers can follow along and take effective, well-organized notes.
  3. What sorts of follow-up questions could be useful to ask?
    Remember your role is to get users to vocalize their thought process and feedback, so it’s important to ask them “why?” questions, especially if they’re moving too fast or being too quiet. You can use your script to brainstorm 1-2 follow up questions for each task.
  4. How do you want to organize or group your notes?
    By task? By page? Structure your script to reflect this, and have a game plan for how you’ll gather, organize, and synthesize your notes.

Something else to remember when writing your script is that your questions should be open ended, directing your users to a task rather than a specific feature. You want to ask them to do something without telling them how.

For example, say something like:

“Create a new account and log in.”

instead of...

“Click on the plus icon on the top right to create a new account.”

It’s important to not be too prescriptive. Open-ended questions will allow your user to explore your interface and let you test how intuitive these tasks really are.

Define Your Team’s Roles

To effectively conduct usability testing, you should come into each session with a clearly defined role. Who is The Interviewer? Who is The Notetaker? How many people on your team should be in attendance? How do you plan to communicate during the session, if at all?

In an ideal world, you should have one person acting as The Interviewer, and one as The Notetaker. It’s best to avoid having extra people in attendance because it could make your user uncomfortable. This isn’t an interrogation. Your goal is to make your user comfortable, so they open up and give you the best feedback possible. Try to limit the amount of people listening in.

Another part of defining your roles is setting clear boundaries on what those roles mean. Ideally, The Interviewer should be the only person in the room speaking. But sometimes The Notetaker might have follow-up questions that The Interviewer didn’t ask. If you decide you want to check in with your teammates during a session, you should have a plan for how and when this will happen. Do you want to include a point in the script where you check in with your team, and they ask 1-2 questions? Do you want to have a backchannel where they can message you questions throughout the session? It’s important to set these boundaries before a session to avoid interruptions that cause distraction, and that waste valuable time.

Conducting the Interview

Once you’re prepared for your interviews, make sure you understand how to conduct them. Reading from your script isn’t going to be enough. You need to be prepared for test users who go off script, or who need to be coaxed into sharing their thoughts. You need to be comfortable with uncomfortable moments, and know when to chime in with hints, versus let your user sus something out. Every session will be different. Every user will reveal something new. I’ve encountered users who “Get It,” and offer fantastic feedback, and I’ve had users who are more defensive, and don’t want to seem like they don’t understand something. In each situation, I’ve had to lean into how they’re reacting, adjusting the way I ask follow-up questions and guide them through the process.

Here are some strategies for how to conduct interviews in a way that maintains your goals, while creating space for the unknown.

1. Setting Expectations for the User

At the start of your testing session, and when inviting users to participate in testing, you should communicate with them your high-level goals, and how they should participate. If they understand these things up front, they’ll be able to participate more effectively. You can include explanations like this in sign-up sheets, emailed invitations, and at the top of your interview script during sessions.

Here is an example of what you could say:

“Thank you for participating in today’s usability testing session for [Your Product]. Today, we are assessing the effectiveness of [this feature, product, prototype, iteration, etc.]. As you move through the interface remember there are no wrong answers. Please just voice any thoughts, questions, or feedback you might have.”

2. Watching the User

During a usability testing session, it’s important to watch what the user does, and how they react to things. Observe where their eyes travel, where their mouse hovers, their expressions and body language. A lot can be said without words. Insightful observations can catch usability errors, slips, and could clue you in to great follow-up questions.

3. Sitting in Silence

Another thing to remember during a session is the importance of sitting in silence. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it can be valuable to give users a moment to think before moving on to the next question. These moments can give you valuable quotes and insights.

Also, try not to fill in the blanks, or finish sentences for users as they talk. You don’t want to speak for them, or assume you know what they’re trying to say. You can ask clarifying questions, but always leave space for the user to think about their answers, even if they’re moving slowly.

4. Be Flexible

Remember that your script is not written in stone. You may be prepared, but you can’t perfectly anticipate where each testing session will go. Some users might have a lot to say about one feature, while another might breeze through it. Sometimes users will prematurely click to a different page or give feedback on a feature you haven’t asked about yet. It’s okay if your sessions don’t go perfectly according to plan. Just remember the goals you’ve set for your usability testing and try to guide users in a way that keeps them on topic and moving forward.

Notetaking & Direct Quotes

Notetaking is one of the most important parts of usability testing. Your notes are the most valuable commodity from this process. Quality notes are essential for identifying patterns in your data, and to understand the biggest problems and best opportunities for improvement. Quality notes defend your findings and squash any pushback because you are not the person making these statements. You are only the messenger. This is the crux of usability testing. Without good notes that document exactly what users said, you won’t be able to defend your findings.

This final section of advice will help you take notes that will be invaluable to your team.

Writing Direct Quotes

When taking notes during a session, it’s usually best practice to jot down direct quotes from the users. This is important for a couple of reasons. For one, verbatim quotes are the best way to capture what the users said and meant, while minimizing any paraphrasing or assumptions that might muddy what they were meaning to say.

Direct quotes can also be valuable in your deliverables when you suggest changes and improvements. The whole point of usability testing is to center the voice of the user so you’re not designing based on assumptions. A direct quote is the best way to support what you’re saying, because it’s the user who’s saying it.

One final detail to consider is whether you can record your sessions. Direct quotes are especially important when you can’t record the session. If you don’t have that resource to fall back on, 100% of your documentation comes down to your notes. You need to document exactly what the users said, so that your whole team can be on the same page.

Tips for Writing Direct Quotes

Oftentimes, people speak in short, fragmented sentences. Our words jump around with our thoughts, and we aren’t very eloquent. As the notetaker, your job is to write a quote in as complete of a sentence as possible. This could mean leaving out pondering words like “Like” or “Um,” and noticing when a thought is dropped, and a new statement has begun.

This could look like:

“I don’t really like how the icon…Wait, why is the button over here?”

And your notes only capture:

“Why is the button over here?”


“It’s confusing. Where is the – wait why is the button over here – oh, hold on I think…”

As you listen, you should be able to parse through what they’re saying and come out with something like:

“It’s confusing… Why is the button over here?”

You should always be taking notes with the end result in mind. Only document the statements that you think could be valuable. This will help you down the line when you begin synthesizing notes and building out deliverables.

In Conclusion

Usability Testing is an incredibly valuable tool. If your goal is to design the best, most intuitive user experience, conducting usability testing sessions is essential. Just remember that the most valuable data is gathered through quality testing. Best practices and strategic approaches exist so that your work is as effective as possible. Remember to plan with the end in mind, establish expectations with your team and testers, and conduct sessions with intention and flexibility. You are the advocate for the user. This is your opportunity to be their voice and help make their lives as easy as possible.

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