You’re excited. You’ve spent the last month finessing your prototype, asking for feedback, and integrating your team’s ideas. You’ve asked your mom, your best friend, and your dog for their impressions. You’ve made sure your interfaces are buildable by the dev team and that all the necessary features are represented in your design. Is it time to launch? Not so fast!
We all know the importance of user testing; usability testing may not be the sexiest part of this aspect of the design process, but it can provide you with a new perspective and help you improve your skills — not to mention, it’s absolutely necessary to do before sending your prototypes along to the dev team for implementation. Whether you’re a seasoned UX designer with a dedicated budget, or just getting started, read on for our list of the best free and paid usability testing tools you should try.
Seven powerful paid usability testing tools
They claim a 537% return on investment if you use their tool. It’s unique in that you pay only for what features you are using. You can also bring your own users, or use their database of 120 million possible participants! UserZoom is one of the better-known tools, it’s all-in-one, and their support is great.
UserTesting features a slightly more intuitive UI than UserZoom, and has some unique features, such as being able to chat with users live as they are completing your test. This tool also makes it easy to put together a highlights reel of the most interesting video clips from your testing – excellent for bringing information back to your team. They have excellent customer service, and you can get support from their research experts.
As the name implies, HotJar provides heat maps for web-based interfaces. Notably, its free plan allows you to collect a limited number of screen recordings, which is very helpful for usability testing — although if you are using the tool for multiple research sprints, you’ll want to purchase the premium version. It also integrates with Google Analytics.
Their catchy slogan, “Analytics tells you What, Userlytics tells you Why” pretty much sums up the value of this tool. Their unique feature set allows you to drill deep into the test response data based on details about each participant. If you are designing for users with very specific needs related to their demographics (for example, an education tool, or a bank interface), this is the tool to use.
This software is unique for its ability to report “crash trends” to help you analyze which user actions cause your application to crash. It allows you to build multiple dashboards for different users or departments in your organization. It also offers some of the more common features of other applications on this list, including heatmaps and screen recordings — but you can use the extended feature set to pitch the purchase of this tool, as it will benefit your project beyond just design-team needs.
Lookback is great for distributed design and research teams who need to collaborate on testing. It works for moderated and unmoderated tests, and is optimized for both in-lab and remote contexts. Remote team members can watch tests live, or after the fact, and can take notes that are attached to specific video timestamps. $49/user/month, with up to ten observer-only accounts available for free.
If you need a super-efficient test suite that integrates with Jira and other project management tools, TestRail is your best option. It has a really effective dashboard, and reports not only on test results but helps you evaluate how effective your testing method actually is. Starting at $32/user/month.
Top free usability testing tools
Most of the paid tools mentioned above let you try them out for free – usually, the trials are time and feature limited. While you should definitely test out a tool before buying, it can be a waste of time and data to use a free trial without intention to pay for the tool in the future. Often, you will not be able to export your data from your chosen tool when the trial is up, and you will have spent time learning to use it without being able to really leverage that knowledge in the future.
Luckily, you can cobble together an effective usability testing suite for yourself using a variety of free tools. Here are our recommendations for usability testing on a budget (or no budget!)
If you need transcription from your test sessions, whether video or phone, I recommend using the Google Docs mobile app. It offers fairly accurate automatic live transcription, which is easy to manipulate after the fact in Google Docs. Especially helpful for the creation of word clouds, if you need a large data set for any reason, or if you don’t have a third team member on the call for note-taking.
Zoom video call with recording feature enabled
Zoom is free, and you can turn on automatic recording of your calls that save to your local machine. You can even set up the app to ask for consent to record before the participants join the call. It’s an incredibly feature-rich application that can be used creatively to make your low-budget usability testing sprint easier.
For unmoderated testing of simple prototypes, Typeform’s free plan enables you to upload images as part of a survey. Using static screencaps, you can make it very easy for participants to answer questions without leaving the prototype screen.
For moderated testing, there can be a fairly high no-show rate, especially for projects that have little to no compensation for test participants. Calendly’s free plan lets participants choose the time that works best for them of your available times, reschedule if something comes up, and sends a reminder the day before so they don’t forget.
Hotjar (free version)
We reviewed Hotjar earlier, but wanted to mention it here as well, since the free version is robust and intuitive enough to qualify it as a legitimate free option for usability testing. Upload your prototypes to the web, and use the screen recordings and heatmaps features to see how your interfaces perform in remote test contexts.
But first, prepare yourself and your team
It’s great if usability testing isn’t left to the last minute, but it shouldn’t be done too early either. Lots of preparation goes into usability testing, so you don’t want to rush into it or start spending your testing time/budget before you have exhausted the amount of testing you can do yourself.
You also should be at the point where you do not need to guide the user through your prototype — it should feel fairly smooth to go from step to step in your interface.
Before your choose which tool you will use for your tests, make sure you are prepared:
- Have a good idea of who it is you would like to test your interface
- Know who on your team should be present for the tests or be privy to the raw footage or test notes
- Know the specific objective of your tests (have a research question you’d like to answer)
- Decide on a method – moderated vs. unmoderated, remote vs. live, and card sorting vs. interview vs. thinking out loud vs…. There are so many options to choose from! Read this great article on some usability testing options.
A final word of advice — spending the time gathering and curating quality data during usability testing can really help build trust amongst team members, and help you get buy-in the next time you need resources for a research sprint. With one paid tool, or even a few well-used free tools, you can provide excellent data-based proof of your design decisions, and advocate for the needs of your users effectively.