Web design

Quick and dirty usability testing

Leah Buley outlines two quick usability tests that should be repeated throughout a project to ensure your design isn't veering off-course

This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8 of The User Experience Team of One - A Research and Design Survival Guide, published by Rosenfeld Media. Use the discount code NETMAGUXT to get 20 per cent off your purchase

Can people use this product as intended? The essence of the quick-and-dirty usability test is that you do it quickly—like the name says. With this method, you’ll forego rigor and perfectionism to make it possible to get rapid feedback on designs. You’ll let go of recruiting and scheduling time with real users and just test the designs with anyone who’s available. Think of it as putting the design in front of the first person you find (who is unfamiliar with the product) and seeing if they can make sense of it.

Of course, ideally you should test designs with people who truly represent the intended end-user, and if you have the time and team support, you should go that route. But if you’re just trying to get a gut check on whether a design direction works or doesn’t, a fresh pair of eyes can help you see things from a new perspective and settle wavering questions.

Average time: As little as 10 or 15 minutes per person, whenever you need it.

Use when:

  • At any point during the design process when you want to do a quality check on the designs.
  • As often as possible to check your work along the way.

Try it out

1. Find someone, anyone

As you’re working on a design, when you want to see if it makes sense to others, print out the design or grab your laptop and wander over to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. This could be someone who sits in the desk next to yours, someone you encounter walking down the hall or in the cafeteria, or if you truly work alone, a friend or family member.

2. Ask them what they’re seeing and how they think it works

Think about the purpose of the page, screen, or section of the design that you’re working on. What are the main things people should be able to use it for? With this list of primary tasks in mind, show your design to your volunteer. Ask her how she thinks she could interact with this design to accomplish a particular task. If there are multiple screens or steps that you’re designing, proceed through each screen, asking her to explain what she’s seeing and what she would do to advance to the next step. That may only take 5 minutes, or it might take 20.

3. Find a few more volunteers

Once you’ve shown your design to one person, try to find a few more people to run through the same process. Your colleagues may enjoy getting involved, since it’s a break from their normal routine and shows that you value their perspective.

4. Iterate the designs

If you identify anything that’s especially confusing to people or that they interpreted differently than you had intended, go back and revise the design.

Tips and tricks for quick-and-dirty usability tests

  • Not for expert users. Quick-and-dirty usability tests are preferable for products that don’t have a highly technical purpose or audience (where the average person has a better chance of being a reasonable stand-in for your actual users). If you do have a very technical product and you’re trying to run a quick-and-dirty usability test, you should try to find someone who is a good stand-in for a typical user. At a minimum, you may need to spend a few minutes up front explaining some concepts and terminology.
  • Be willing to stop and fix things. If you discover after your first few conversations that something in the new design is just not working for people, stop and fix the design before continuing. Ultimately, it’s more productive to test three different designs of progressively improving quality with two people each than to test one bad design with six people
  • If you work remotely... Enlist the help of family, friends, acquaintances, or people you meet on the street. You can also use online tools like OpenHallway, Chalkmark, or TryMyUI to create test scenarios and record users going through these scenarios remotely. TryMyUI also finds test participants for you.

Five-Second Test

What impression is created by a specific screen, step, or moment within the product?
First popularized by Christine Perfetti at User Interface Engineering, a five-second test is a lightning fast but surprisingly insightful method to quickly assess the information hierarchy in a product. Read more at www.uie.com/articles/five_second_test/. A five-second test helps you see how clear and memorable a given moment in the product or service is to users.

In a five-second test, show a design to a user for five seconds, and then remove it from sight and ask her what she remembers about the design.

Like a quick-and-dirty usability test, a five-second test can and should be done regularly to check your work as you progress through the design process. You can even combine a quick-and-dirty usability test with a five-second test for a rapid but rich round of validation. In a five-second test, you basically expose the user to a screen or moment in a product, ask her to look at it for five seconds, and then remove the screen from view. Once the screen has been removed, ask her what she remembers seeing, and what she thought the overall purpose of the page or screen was. Considering that people often use products in a distracted, multi- tasking state, the five-second test is actually a pretty good indicator for how people really experience your products.

Average time: 5–10 minutes per screen

Use when:

  • You want to test the information hierarchy of a page, screen, or state.
  • As often as possible to check your work along the way.

Try it out

1. Find a volunteer

Find someone to test your designs on. This can be anyone who is handy (as in the quick-and-dirty usability test) or representative users. Explain that you are going to show your volunteer a screen in a product, but only for five seconds, after which you’ll take it away and ask her some questions about it.

2. Commence the five-second countdown

Show your participant the design that you are testing and silently count off five seconds. You can do this in person by showing her a printout or a design on the screen of your computer, mobile device, or tablet. If you’re doing this remotely, you can do it through screen sharing software, such as WebEx, Skype, or Adobe Connect.

3. Ask the volunteer what she remembers

After five seconds have passed, remove the picture from view. Now ask your research participant what she remembers seeing on the page or screen. Also ask her what she thinks the purpose of the page was, and, if she is unfamiliar with your product, what she thinks the product was.

4. Did she get it right?

Did she notice the most important messages or information that you’re trying to convey in that moment? If not, your information hierarchy may be off. Did she correctly interpret the purpose of the product and the screen? If not, the balance of messaging and basic affordances (or, what it looks like you can do with that page) may need more work. Could she correctly identify the type of product this is? If not, you may need to think about navigation, branding, or messaging.

5. Repeat regularly

Repeat as many times as needed to vet key screens or moments in the product.

Tips and tricks for five-second tests
  • Test a variety of screens. This is a great way to validate important parts of a product, like the start screen or the home page. But people sometimes enter products through the back door, too. They poke around online; they save bookmarks; they follow links in emails. To test that the product design is robust at all levels, consider running five-second tests on random lower-level pages as well.
  • If you work remotely... Online tools for this sort of testing are getting more sophisticated all the time. Check out FiveSecondTest, Verify, or Clue.

This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8 of The User Experience Team of One - A Research and Design Survival Guide, published by Rosenfeld Media. Use the discount code NETMAGUXT to get 20 per cent off your purchase

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