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Unlocking Value: The Importance of Usability Testing in Digital Product Development

Building great digital products that deliver a truly first class user experience is important for the growth of any business. We all know the pressures that often come with digital projects, especially software development, where there are always deadlines and speed is critical.

This means that user testing can sometimes be regarded as something that’s “a nice to have”, rather than a necessity. This is a big mistake. Carrying out user testing is crucial for validating design assumptions to help you build the very best version of the product.

As a business investing money and time into building digital products, you want to make sure that your customers or users want to use your products rather than your competitors. In order to do this you need to collect intelligence through user feedback and observation.

User testing, helps you to understand how people use your product and for what purpose. There’s a number of methodologies and tools that can be used to conduct user research and testing, but for the purpose of this we are going to focus on the importance of usability testing and the value that provides during the product development lifecycle.

What is usability testing?

First, let’s look at a definition of what usability actually means.

“usability is the desire of ease with which products such as software or applications can be used to achieve the required goals of users effectively and efficiently”

Usability takes into consideration a range of different factors, however you should be aiming to test and analyse with the following goals in mind:

  • Intuition - how intuitive are the designs and/ or user interface?

  • Efficiency - is the app for me to use - or how fast can I accomplish tasks?

  • Errors - how many errors of users make when using the app and how easily are these errors rectified?

  • Memorability - how well do users remember how to use the app after a period of time?

  • User satisfaction- How much does the user like using the app?

Why is usability testing important?

Usability testing is essentially a qualitative method of conducting user testing. It involves an observer performing a series of tests with prospective end users to see how they interact with the prototype and how easily and quickly they accomplish certain tasks. It can also help you figure out why users aren’t doing certain things you would expect them to.

The goal here is to quickly identify any glaring usability issues within the designs at the earliest stage possible. The earlier any issues are identified and addressed, the less expensive future fixes will be further down the development lifecycle.

Usability means paying attention to the little things that could have a substantial impact on the overall user experience.

If we take the example of designing a mobile application, a designer needs to take into consideration differences in operating systems versions (eg iOS & Android), different screen resolutions, nuances in portrait and landscape modes, the importance of auto-filled user data and ensure to eliminate unresponsive gestures such as buttons and calls to actions.

Usability Testing helps you to identify these issues quicker and take that feedback into consideration for the next phase of the project

At what stage to conduct usability testing?

That's a very common that comes up again and again. Simply, you should be conducting usability tests before any design decisions or iterations are undertaken.

This will typically include:

  • Initial concept stage - you can conduct usability testing even with low fidelity paper wireframes to test assumptions and gauge user behaviour before you begin any high fidelity wireframes

  • The beginning of a project - if you are re-designing an app or system you can conduct usability tests on the current system to identify frustrations and pain points

  • In the UX and design phase - when you are going through design iterations it’s a good idea to test your designs with prospective end users

  • During development

  • Post- launch

How do I conduct usability testing?

1. Create a test plan

At the beginning, you need to define what it is that you are trying to test, what goals you are trying accomplish and how you will measure the results. It’s a good idea at this stage to create a task list that doesn’t try to boil the ocean. A good benchmark would be to think of between 10 and 12 tasks you’d like to test. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you could conduct open-ended usability testing (observing how someone interacts with a product with no specific direction) or task-based scenarios which provides insights into how easy it is to complete certain tasks within the prototype.

Getting your team to write a test script can help to guide your participants through the test, encourage them to provide open feedback and reassure them. It also provides structure for your test and allows you to capture the data you need to.

2. Recruit your participants

One of the most important (yet time consuming) aspects is to recruit the right test participants. If you have a good idea of who your target customer personas or end users are then it should be relatively straightforward. If not, it's important to create some personas of your potential product users and invite the to be involved. Some companies provide incentives for potential users to get involved in the testing stage or you can outsource this to companies who will find the right people for you.

3. Get testing

There's a few different ways to actually carry out your usability tests. Which method you choose will determine on what you're trying to test and what goals you are trying to achieve. These tests should always be recorded so you can go back and reference them with your team when you need to. The two main types of usability testing are:

4. Moderated testing

Moderated testing refers to a real person being physically present when participants are performing the test. The moderator will work directly with the test participant, helping to guide them through the process and test cases and helping them with any challenges they may have. This can be performed either in- person or remotely. This type of usability testing is best suited to scenarios when you require a high level of interaction with a participant to understand their motivations, for example if it’s quite a complex process or you need to test a limited set of functionality.

5. Unmoderated testing

Unmoderated testing, on the other hand, is not moderated or guided. The test participant is left to explore the app on their own and complete tasks in their own time and way. This is a good way to see how a potential user navigates their way round the app on their own, allowing observers to analyse how the participant interacts with the product as a whole. Given it’s unsupervised nature, it gives you the ability to perform the tests with multiple participants at a lower cost. However, if a participant gets stuck or doesn’t know what to do next, you can’t step in for guidance.

As mentioned above, which method you choose will depend entirely on the project and what you’re trying to test and achieve.

6. Analyse your findings

There’s no real “correct” way to analyse your findings and every company will do this a little bit differently. By way of example, during one of our recent usability testing sessions with a client, we conducted moderated testing sessions with individual participants (who would be end-users of the app). We organised for a group of observers who sat in another room to note down key quotes or points made by the test participant and then used this information to create an “affinity map”. The point of the affinity map was to map key themes or points into groups to see where priorities lay and which areas required the most attention. From there, we created a one page customer journey map documenting the stages, key points, pain points, user goals, user needs, content and priorities that we learned from the affinity map.

From there, you can building start on the design iterations that address the important issues and move forward in the product development process.

The importance of usability testing should not be underestimated, it’s something that should be rooted in your digital product development process if you want to build products that your end users will love. It's a brilliant opportunity to learn and refine your product as you go.

Although usability testing can act as a firm basis for the research you do on a digital product, you should also consider combining this with other user research techniques to make sure that you are building something that is truly user-centric.

Interested in finding out more about xDesign can help you carry out user testing or help with the digital product development process? Get in touch, we'd love to help!