What is usability testing and why do we do it?

Maria Drummond
Wednesday 27 July 2016

When designing new webpages, it’s important to be aware of the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a phenomenon where, the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing. When it comes to websites, this can result in your own style and preferences coming before the user’s needs. As Duncan Stephen stated in a previous article on usability testing “when we are too close to our own work, it can be difficult to fairly evaluate it.”

One way to counter the curse of knowledge is to ensure usability testing occurs regularly throughout the design, creation and the post-production process. Through usability testing we can see if there are any flaws in terms of content, aesthetics, usability, legibility and navigation. This post will look at what usability testing is, and how the digital communications team uses it.

In the digital communications team, we aim to conduct usability testing at two stages of a project: before and after we make any significant changes in the design of the site. For example, we have tested the existing School websites before we make any changes to them in order to get a sense of what works and what could be improved. We also tested the newly designed PGT pages to gauge the effect of the changes and measure our success compared to the ‘old-style’ PGT pages (I wrote a blog post on the results). Running usability testing before and after any major changes are made to the site allows us to get a baseline of how users experience the website at a particular stage in design.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product as it is developed by testing it on others. Some benefits of usability testing include:

  1. Provides the qualitative data that analytics can’t
  2. Users see things such as bugs or design errors that designers don’t
  3. Helps identify issues in the information architecture
  4. The user’s needs are placed before of your own
  5. Works well with Agile project management
  6. You get to meet the end user

Overall, usability testing has the potential to dramatically improve a website for the end user.

Usability testing

The usability testing process

In the last two months, the digital communications team have run three rounds of testing, all with different participants and with different scenarios. The testing is split into three main stages:

  1. Planning
  2. Testing
  3. Reporting

 1. Planning

In the planning stage, the room where the testing is taking place in is booked, calls for participants are advertised and the script is written. Creating a script is vital for control as it ensures each participant is asked the same questions. It also allows us to focus on the areas which we think could be problematic or those that may need refining. For example, streamlining the user’s path is important for user experience, so we would set the participants a task that would show how they find specific information. Using a script is also beneficial if the test is to be repeated for another iteration, as reusing the initial script allows for the comparison of data.

The script usually comprises of the introduction, which explains the testing, initial questions which can help break the ice, and the tasks themselves. We also include a final question which asks the participant for their overall thoughts on the new webpages. Here’s an example of a navigation task:

“Imagine that you are a prospective postgraduate student interested in the Finance and Economics MSc. You want to contact someone for more information about the course. Tell me how you would do that.”

2. Testing

When a participant arrives, the overall aim of the testing is explained to them, and they are asked to sign a recording consent form. It is important at this stage for us to stress that they can make no mistakes during the test, as we are testing the website, not them. This is also the stage to encourage the participant to think out loud as much as possible during the tasks. This allows us to pinpoint problem areas, and the implications they have on user experience.

After this, the recording begins and the participants work their way through the tasks. Recording the testing sessions is essential for reporting, as we record the participant’s voice, screen and face using the recording software Lookback.

3. Reporting

After the testing has taken place, collating the data from the various recordings allows us to get a sense of the ‘bigger picture’ with regards to what the users experienced and thought. This is also the stage where any patterns or anomalies are highlighted. The results from the test are written up for reference when making any changes to the design. In the past, Lewis also created a video summarising the test for stakeholders.


Of course, there are some downsides to usability testing, such as the time needed to conduct the tests, certain biases which come from the phrasing of questions and the use of inappropriate participants. However, by weighing up the costs involved and tailoring the process to your team’s needs, usability testing is ultimately a rewarding exercise.

Share this story

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.