Having participated in several usability tests – as an observer only – you would think I’d be more prepared for when the guys turned around and told me what my next challenge would be; to carry out a usability test by myself. You would be wrong!
At this point I had only observed three sets of usability testing, from the planning stage through to producing reports. I had not been to any client feedback sessions yet, but overall I would say I had seen the majority of preparation that is required for a usability test. Upon hearing that it was to be my first time in the driving seat I was nervous, even though it was not a paid project.
I made a fair few mistakes, things that I could have done better, things I forgot entirely, and in some cases, things I just didn’t think about at all.
Here’s a breakdown of my top learning experiences from carrying out my first Usability Tests;
1. Don’t help the user
One of the main tasks I underestimated was how hard it would be to NOT help the individual.
Obviously as a researcher I am not meant to help a participant in their tasks, or lead them in any way. I am purely meant to relay tasks and then observe as the users’ lead me through what they are doing. However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. I was conscious that whenever I was asked a question I faltered on what to reply. I remember reading a handy list of examples of what to say should such an occasion arise, but it’s hard to include every example for what could happen.
So my tip is:
- Keep it friendly and chatty, but once the test commences, don’t say more than you have to.
- When asked a question try and answer it with a question, turning it back to the participant.
2. Always have back-up tasks in the test script
No matter how many tasks I thought I had, users took me by surprise by going through them differently and inadvertently performing the next task whilst completing another. You can’t control what someone will do, and I was not experienced enough to take total control over every situation that arose. However, with careful planning and preparation you can undoubtedly help prevent most of the things that I struggled with through that first test.
- Don’t be too rigid with your test script, no user will do exactly the same thing so be prepared
for them to go ‘off piste’, and let them move onto other tasks if it is part of their natural journey.
- Always have back up tasks for those participants who fly through the test.
3. Have the confidence to stop a user and refocus them on the task
A couple of times through the user tests I became aware that the participant was offering up more opinion than actually interacting with the website. One particular user was comparing different websites’ colour schemes and not really focusing on the task at hand. I found it hard to interrupt what he was saying as obviously I was aware of spoiling the relaxed atmosphere. Although, at the same time I needed him to focus on the task to understand what people would do when I’m not sat next to them. When a user has become too unfocused and it is not relevant to the usability test, it is necessary for the researcher to intervene.
- Help the user to keep focused on the tasks at hand, by politely repeating the task, and try to
filter the participant’s opinions.
More tips will follow as I become familiar with running usability tests. For now, the guys have left me to learn by trial and error (on internal projects) and it’s been a really interesting experience. I’m not sure I would have learned as much if they had just told me what to do.
Are you learning about usability testing? If you’ve got any tips you want to share then it would be great to hear from you!
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About Samantha Harvey
Sam recently graduated from Visual Communication. She joined our team in April 2011 and has been conducting user research and has been making sure our user interfaces follow good design principles. She's keen to point out our poor selection of fonts... er I mean typography (sorry Sam). Follow Samantha on twitter @samharvey_ux