Blog Post

An Introduction to User Testing

“You can see a lot by observing.”Yogi Berra

User Testing is an established method for evaluating the effectiveness of an application or set of design concepts. It involves interviewing and observing users as they interact with a system or prototype. User testing is commonly used to help validate an interface, resulting in a set of insights to improve a specific design. However, depending on the goals of your research, user testing can be used to elicit feedback from users about concepts that will be used to inform additional research.  From an implementation (and cost) standpoint, user testing can be as simple as a handful of users discussing design sketches on paper; or as formal as a sophisticated lab study with a dozen carefully screened users and a panel of observers.

The value and accuracy of a user testing study is not measured by the technology used, but by the appropriateness of the interview techniques and competence of the moderation. That said, there are a number ways to conduct user testing.

Lab Testing – User testing conducted with users in a lab environment. While lab configurations vary, the basic components are most often; a computer setup with additional chair for an interviewer, some method of capturing the session such as a video camera, and a two-way mirror for observers in an observation area. Some labs approximate a home environment with couches and furniture. However, a sophisticated setup with observation area is not necessary. The first user testing lab I created was in an extra office. It had been vacant due to the fact that it was an odd triangular shaped space. This made an observation window or other advanced amenities impractical. We got by with a desk, computer, two chairs, webcam, and screen-capture software.

Remote Testing – Remote testing is conducted with users in their home or office environment. The interviewer conducts the study remotely via testing software. Depending on the software used, the interviewer can speak with the user, see his or her actions on the computer screen, and view the user via webcam.  In addition to the sometimes significant cost savings when compared to lab testing, remote testing allows users to stay in their own environment using their own setup and so can provide more true-to-life observations. In addition, remote testing allows you to recruit users from diverse populations and markets without having to have them come to a set location.

Field Testing – The most accurate type of user testing is conducted by the researcher in the user’s environment. The interviewer may go to a user’s home or office and sit with them as they use the system, or even ride with them in their car to monitor mobile phone use. Field testing may not be practical or economical all cases, especially when testing consumer oriented products. However, it can provide additional insights that are otherwise impossible to obtain. Field research is particularly useful in a business context for testing operational systems such as billing or call center applications. It can be exceedingly difficult for users to give substantive feedback on transactional-type systems without using them in the context of their day to day work.

In addition to ways of testing, there are a few different types of interview techniques.

Task-Oriented Inquiry – As the name implies, task-oriented inquiry is when a user is asked to perform a specific task or set of tasks. I.e. “How would you…?” Researcher can then observe the user and ask follow-up questions about what they are thinking, and how they perceive the process (sometimes called the “think out loud” methodology). When conducting the study it is valuable to both observe and ask for the user to evaluate tasks. Often, the user’s perception of the process deviates from what the observational data shows. For example, a user might in reality struggle with a task, but then indicate that it was easy. Having both types of information provides a clearer window into the user’s mindset and what’s actually going on. Task-oriented inquiry is particularly useful for evaluating a system design and for validating against standard usability metrics.

Contextual Inquiry – Contextual inquiry is observational data collected as users use a system, i.e. user “show-and-tell”. In the strictest sense, it is a field study technique by which the researcher observes the users in their own home or office, interacting not only with the system but their environment (answering the phone, talking with co-workers, etc). However, the basics of a contextual inquiry can be used in a lab or remote testing scenario. The researcher asks the user to use an application or website the way they would naturally and then observes the user interacting with the system, for example: please show me how you normally access your favorite shopping sites. The researcher may ask some clarification questions as needed, for example:. I noticed you went to a search engine first, why is that?

Ethnographic Interviewing – A variation on contextual inquiry, ethnographic interviewing is where, instead of directly observing the user interact with a system, the researcher asks questions about the environmental issues around system usage. While this type of information is considered most accurate when directly observed in the user’s environment (i.e. in an ethnographic study), ethnographic interviewing can offer substantive insights when direct observation is either impractical or impossible. For example: “We’re interested in how you shop online. Tell me, when and where do you usually do your online shopping? You said you shop from your desk at work, how your desk is setup?”

Why Conduct User Testing?

  • User testing allows you to gather direct feedback from users and collect observational data that will help you improve your designs.
  • User testing will reveal the majority of usability problems before you release the software.

When is User Testing Most Useful?

  • When you want to validate the success of your system design.
  • When you want to explore the concepts and contexts of a potential system.

Development Lifecycle

User testing is often used during the early design stages to test concepts and in later design stages to drill down into the most successful designs for intended use. User testing is also helpful in the quality assurance phase to evaluate implementation details.

Limitations of User Testing

  • Tests are limited by the quality of your test’s materials and methodology
  • User testing will never be as accurate as beta testing or identify 100% of the issues that will occur in the field.

How to Conduct User Testing

  1. Define your research plan. A research plan for user testing includes considerations such as the goals of your research, what you will be testing, who you will be testing, how many people you will test, how you will recruit participants, and the mechanics of how you will conduct the research itself.  At a high level you’ll need: a participant recruiting screener, a script (more formally called a test protocol), a testing location, moderator, participants, and your prototype or live system. Your study can be a simple “friends and family” paper prototype test, or a formal study. Either way, having a thought-out, documented plan will facilitate the process and provide credibility to your study once complete.
  2. Develop a screener. A recruiting screener is the criteria by which you will select your participants. The screener is used to determine if a potential participant matches the characteristics and demographics defined by your research plan. The screener should not only disqualify users based on answers to questions, but it should indicate how many of each type of user (such as the number of users in each age range) need to be recruited for the study.
  3. Develop a Test Script. – A test script is the outline of the discussion and questions or topics the researcher or moderator will cover with the participant when conducting the test. It should include a full walkthrough of the test such as the welcome, purpose of the study, ice-breaker topics, permission requests, evaluation scenarios or questions, closing feedback and handing out any incentive once the test is complete.
  4. Moderator & Location. You’ll need to identify your moderator and testing location in accordance with your research plan. You want the user to be comfortable and feel free to respond honestly. A usability testing session is usually an artificial environment so it is important to put users at ease so they will behave as naturally as possible. Moderators should be able to be objective and ask questions to elicit feedback without swaying results.
  5. Recruit Participants. There are a number of ways you can recruit; for larger formal studies it is common to hire a market research firm to get people. However, you can build your own list of participants. Normally, you do not need more than five participants for most user research tests (Nielsen 2000). However, anticipate the fact that people will back out or not show up, and recruit a few alternates.
  6. Conduct Testing. Before you get started, make sure the participant is familiar with the environment and understands that you are not testing them, but the system. Follow the test script, but be open to actions that may fall outside the predefined activities. You may need to balance letting users go off on their own, with reining them back to predefined tasks.
  7. Analyze Results. Categorize your findings and bubble up relevant insights for your report. If you outsource testing, personally view all the interviews or review the video. Summaries are helpful but are only one interpretation; you’ll miss a lot if you don’t see for yourself.
  8. Schedule Readout. As with all user research methods, conducting the study is only half the process; you need to evangelize the results. After conducting the read-out, publish your documentation and let people know where you’ve placed the information.

Fig 6b Paper Test

Figure 6: User Testing with Paper Prototypes. Users are asked to describe what they see as well as to expound on how they would expect to perform certain tasks.

Additional Resources

  • Ethnio ( – recruit people from your website for research
  • UserView ( – Web based remote user testing tool
  • Morae ( – User testing application
  • Craigslist ( – Popular community board to recruit participants