Wednesday, November 25, 2009

6-step process for planning a user test

by Abid Warsi

Preparing for user testing requires a surprisingly large amount of planning. Here are the 6 key steps you should go through to get ready.

1. Create a usability testing plan

Identify what aspects of your website you want to evaluate and create a list of around 6 tasks. For each task include the following:

* A scenario - This is an instruction you'll ask participants to read. It should include a goal and an imagined circumstance, something which will make the scenario feel realistic. For example, "It's your friend's birthday next week. You want to buy him a present and you know he likes action movies. Please buy him the latest Batman DVD."

* Stopping criteria - The page or point in the website participants should reach complete the task. This will help you objectively determine whether a task is achieved.

* Correct path - It's helpful to note down the correct path(s) participants need to take to achieve the goal. If the moderator is ill on the testing day their colleague will be able run the sessions even if they aren't familiar with the website.

* Possible issues - There might be a dozen things you want to evaluate on a page and it can be hard to remember them all during a usability testing session. For each task have a list of the possible issues which you can refer to during the session.

Finally, share your test plan with your clients, stakeholders or project sponsors to check you've covered everything they were hoping to achieve.

2. Recruit your participants

Recruitment is one of the most important things to get right. If your participants aren't representative of your target audience then you won't be able to trust your findings. If they turn up late to the usability testing sessions or don't show up at all then you'll have to reschedule the testing.

Create a detailed recruitment profile for who you want to take part in the usability testing. Your recruiter will need this to make sure they're inviting the right people to take part.

Make sure participants are given accurate and easy to use directions to the venue. Give them a telephone number so that they can call someone if they're running late. Finally, call them the day before the testing to make sure they know what time they're coming and how to get there.

3. Checking the website

Get as familiar as you can with the website or prototype you'll be testing. The more familiar you are, the smoother the sessions will go.

Book the testing sessions to start 3 or 4 days after the website is scheduled to be ready, if your schedule permits it. Design and development work can sometimes overrun and have knock-on effects on your usability testing.

Put a freeze on development of the website while usability testing is taking place. You don't want the website to be change while you're testing it or, worse still, to go offline due to a technical issue.

Try to have a local copy on the PC you'll be using just in case something else goes wrong e.g. the network connection fails.

4. Arrange the facilities

Book out usability testing facilities well in advance to make sure they'll be available. Set up your equipment the day before.

Try to arrange facilities where you can invite clients or stakeholders to watch the testing from an adjoining room through a one-way mirror. People find watching usability testing very interesting and it helps them to build empathy with the websites' users. It's a great way to get people bought into the idea of investing in usability. Also, try to arrange facilities where you'll be able to make video recordings of the sessions which you can refer to later.

If you don't have suitable facilities you can hire them from companies that conduct usability testing or market research. Webcredible hires its testing labs in London.

5. Create a crib sheet

You'll have quite a few things to say to participants at the start of a session and it's easy to forget 1 or 2 things. For example, your list might say that you're making a video recording, you want participants to think aloud and that you're not evaluating their performance. Add all such things to your crib sheet and refer to that at the start of each session.

There are other things you'll want to do at the start or end of a session, such as start/end the video recording and delete the browser history (so that someone won't see the previous participant's visited links). Add these to your crib sheet too.

6. Run a pilot test

Run a pilot test with a participant or a colleague. Do this in the actual room where you'll be conducting the usability testing to check that everything works. Go through everything in your test plan to make sure that the scenarios you've written make sense to someone else and can be completed within the time you have with each participant (typically 1 hour due to average concentration spans).


When you're conducting user testing you want to make sure that nothing will go wrong and that you're clients or stakeholders will be satisfied with what you've done. These 6 steps will help you plan your usability testing and make sure that things run smoothly.

About the Author

This article was written by Abid Warsi a senior consultant at the user experience consultancy, Webcredible. Abid's passionate about improving the user experience of websites and is responsible for leading a variety of user experience projects including eye tracking and information architecture.