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How to conduct a successful usability test

Jan Moons
Jan Moons

Jan has more than 25 years of experience in software development for different domains like IT, telecom, e-health, medical devices, smart metering & construction. By combining creativity, usability and design with technical aspects, he makes products & platforms your users love.

As a so-called friction hunter, I understand that conducting successful usability tests is an essential part of product development. By planning, performing, analyzing, and reporting about these tests, you can identify issues and areas for improvement, ensuring that products align with users’ needs' and ultimately enhancing user satisfaction.

In this article, I will delve into the world of usability tests, shedding light on what they are, the numerous benefits they offer, their return on investment, and the various types of usability tests available. Furthermore, I will provide real-life examples and step-by-step instructions to empower you in conducting your own usability tests.

Usability Tests - what’s in a name?

Usability tests provide a means to assess how user-friendly and effective a product is by closely observing users as they interact with it. The primary goal is to pinpoint any issues or areas for improvement that might influence both user satisfaction and the overall success of the product.

The benefits of Usability Testing

  1. Identifying usability issues at an early stage in the product development process can result in significant time and resource savings. Enhancing a product’s usability can increase user satisfaction, which can lead to higher sales and brand loyalty. Reducing user frustration and errors can result in cost savings by reducing the need for customer support and training expenses.

Different types of Usability Tests

When considering usability tests, you have various options to choose from, depending on the specific goals, budget constraints and available time. The primary categories of usability tests include:

1. Formative vs. Summative Testing

Formative testing is a type of usability testing that is conducted during the early stages of the design process. Its primary purpose is to pinpoint usability concerns and potential areas for improvement before the product reaches its final development stage. This type of testing often involves prototypes or early product versions, with user feedback being gathered and subsequently utilized to implement design changes and improvements.

Another goal of formative testing is to guarantee that the product is usable and effective for its target audience. By conducting formative testing early in the design process, developers can proactively uncover usability issues and make essential modifications before the product is released. This proactive approach not only saves time and resources in the long term but also leverages the fact that implementing changes is typically more straightforward and cost-effective during the early stages of the design process.

Summative testing, on the other hand, is conducted after the product has been fully developed and is typically used to assess the overall effectiveness of the product. This type of testing frequently involves a larger scale and a broader user sample. The primary goal of summative testing is to determine whether the product meets its intended goals and is effective for its intended audience.

This type of testing is typically characterized by a more formal and structured approach compared to formative testing. It often centers around the collection of quantitative data to measure the product's overall effectiveness.

For example, a website could undergo summative testing to assess its capacity to convert visitors into customers, or a mobile app could be subjected to testing to evaluate its effectiveness in helping users achieve specific goals. Summative testing serves as a valuable tool for developers to pinpoint areas where the product may be underperforming and to implement enhancements that ensure it aligns with the user's needs and expectations.

2. Moderated vs. Unmoderated Testing

Moderated testing involves a moderator who guides the user throughout the testing process. The moderator plays a role in posing questions that help clarify the user's actions and thoughts as they interact with the product. This approach enables the collection of more in-depth feedback and provides the moderator with a deeper understanding of the user's experience.

In contrast, unmoderated testing is a testing approach in which users independently complete the test. Their actions are recorded, and they are frequently asked to provide feedback through surveys or other forms of evaluation.

This method proves valuable when seeking feedback from a substantial sample size or when budget and time limitations make moderated testing impractical. However, it's important to note that unmoderated testing falls short of offering the same depth of detail and insights that moderated testing can provide.

3. In-person vs. Remote Testing

In-person testing is a type of user testing where both the user and the moderator are physically present in the same location. This setting enables the moderator to directly witness the user's behavior, ask questions and provide guidance in real-time.

This approach can provide valuable insights into user behavior and responses that might be difficult to capture using other approaches.

In-person usability test

Remote testing, on the other hand, involves testing with users who are geographically distant from the moderator. This type of testing can be executed via screen-sharing technology, remote user testing platforms or various other means.

Remote testing offers the advantage of convenience compared to in-person testing by eliminating the need for travel and potentially enabling a broader participant base. However, remote testing can also be more challenging, as the moderator may have less control over the testing environment.

When to Conduct Usability Testing

Conducting usability testing at various stages throughout the product development lifecycle is imperative to ensure the overall usability of the final product.
Usability testing should be conducted at three main points in time:

1. Early in the Product Development Lifecycle

Conducting usability testing in the initial stages of the product development lifecycle is essential for pinpointing issues and potential areas for improvement. Formative testing proves especially valuable during this phase, serving to guarantee that the product aligns with user needs and expectations.

By conducting formative testing early, you can catch issues before they become too expensive or difficult to fix. The early implementation of formative testing allows for the timely identification of issues, preventing them from evolving into costly or challenging problems.

2. During Development

In addition, it is crucial to conduct usability testing throughout the development phase to verify that the product aligns with user needs and expectations. This becomes especially critical when implementing substantial changes to the product, such as a user interface redesign or the introduction of new features.

Summative testing, frequently used during this stage, serves to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the product.

3. After Launch

Furthermore, it’s essential to perform usability testing after the product launch to ensure that it is meeting user needs and expectations. This can help uncover any issues or areas for improvement that may not have surfaced in earlier stages.

Employing summative testing during this period is common, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the overall effectiveness of the product.

Steps to Conduct a Usability Test

1. Plan the Test

The initial phase in conducting a usability test involves meticulous planning.
This includes identifying:

  • The objectives of the test
  • The target user group
  • The assigned tasks for participants
  • The metrics that will be used to evaluate the success of the test

Let's say you're working on the development of a fitness-tracking app. Your focus is on assessing the usability of the app's workout tracking feature.

  • The objectives of the test: Identify any issues or areas for improvement in the workout tracking feature.
  • The target user group: Regular gym-goers who track their workouts.
  • The assigned tasks for participants: logging a workout or editing a previous workout.
  • The metrics that will be used to evaluate the success of the test: completion rates or time to complete tasks.
A canvas for planning a usability test

2. Recruit Participants

Once you have a plan and script for your usability test, it's time to recruit participants. The number of participants you need depends on your test goals and available budget. Typically, 5-10 participants are sufficient for identifying usability issues

You can recruit participants in various ways, such as:

  • Posting on social media or job boards
  • Reaching out to existing customers or users
  • Engaging a recruiting agency

Ensure that recruited participants fit your target user demographic, possessing relevant experience or familiarity with the product or similar offerings.

3. Conduct the Test

The third phase in conducting a usability test is the actual test session. This involves guiding participants through designated tasks and observing their interactions with the product.

In the case of the fitness tracking app, you will guide participants through tasks like logging a workout or editing a previous one. During this session:

  • Observe their interactions with the app
  • Document any issues or areas for improvement
  • Ask participants to vocalize their thoughts as they navigate the app to gain insight into their decision-making processes.

4. Analyze the Results

The fourth phase of a usability test encompasses result analysis. This involves a review of the test notes and collected data, such as completion rates and task completion times.

In the context of the fitness tracking app example, your analysis involves a comprehensive review of test notes and gathered data. This process aims to identify issues or areas for improvement within the workout tracking feature, such as confusing terminology or a lack of feedback after completing a workout.

It also involves identifying positive aspects, such as the app's efficiency in logging workouts.

5. Report the Findings

The final step in conducting a usability test is the reporting of findings. This involves summarizing the test results and the formulation of improvement recommendations.

For the fitness tracking app, potential recommendations for enhancement could include:

  • Adjusting the terminology used in the workout tracking feature, or incorporating feedback after completing a workout.
  • Enhancing to the user interface to make the app more intuitive and easier to use.


Conducting usability testing may initially appear overwhelming, yet it stands as an essential component in guaranteeing that our designed products align seamlessly with user needs and expectations.

By following these steps and selecting the suitable usability test for each stage in the product development lifecycle, we not only ensure that our products are usable but also effective and enjoyable.

So, go ahead and plan your first usability test today!