Here’s the situation: you’ve created what you think is a fabulous product. You’ve invested tons of money in designing and building it, as well as marketing and selling it, but shortly after the release, you see that your users can’t use it. Did you neglect to check if there were any usability issues?

If a user is unable to complete the desired task, then they’re not going to stick around and your product is not going to be successful—no matter how good it looks.

“These days it’s pretty easy to make new products—there are a lot of frameworks and tools out there—but it’s still really hard to make a great product, a product that people can understand and use, a product that makes people feel good,” said Aaron Walter, the author of the book Designing For Emotion.

“That’s so hard to come by and it’s definitely a competitive advantage if you can do it,” he added. Due to this, usability testing comes into play.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a way to see how easy a product is to use by testing it with real users. Usability testing methods involve testing and monitoring user behavior as the user interacts with a product and complete specific tasks. Usability testing works equally well at the beginning of the design process (it can accompany user research) and after the product release. Usability testing is often conducted repeatedly, from early development and after the product release. The main benefit and purpose of usability testing is to identify usability problems with a design as early as possible and to minimize the cost of fixing those defects.


Usability testing can be conducted both on prototypes and on the finished products, but testing with prototypes is more beneficial (it’s less expensive to change a prototype rather than a finished product). While there are a number of factors that go into usability testing, it can be broken down into a few major steps.

No matter what usability testing methods you will use, here is a general process of usability testing with a prototype:

1.    Identify what needs to be tested and why (a new product, feature, etc.)

2.    Identify the target audience (your desired customer). Create user personas to understand your target end-users groups.

3.    Create a list of tasks that the user will have to go through (test plan)

4.    Establish metrics. Metrics will help you evaluate the results of testing. Time on a task, success rate, goal fulfillment are just a few metrics that you can use for testing.

5.    Recruit the right test participants. When recruiting test participants, consider both user demographics (age, where they live, income, etc.) as well as psychographics (personality, values, opinions, interests, and lifestyles).

6.    Find a moderator. This person will give test participants a series of tasks that they must perform with the design and observes each participant’s actions and reactions.

7.    Analyze the results of testing and prioritize the findings. Usability testing can provide a lot of insights, and it’s important to prioritize the findings according to their impact.

8.    Discuss the insights with stakeholders. Check if your vision is aligned with business needs.

9.    Apply what you’ve learned. Introduce the required changes to your product design. Remember that usability testing is an iterative process and you will need to validate your design decisions with real users.

Identifying the perfect recruit

Your ideal test user is the person who will actually be using your product.

“There are systems out there like, which is a great service, but you’re basically hiring people who aren’t necessarily your customers to pretend that they’re your customers,” Walter said. “Choosing someone who is actually your customer, who is actually likely to use this part of your product, is ideal so they’re not manufacturing their motivations.”

“You don’t need a huge sample size,” Walter said. “Somewhere between three and five will help you understand what the problems and patterns are.” Jakob Nielsen proves this point in his article Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users. As you add more and more test participants, you get fewer and fewer new insights because you will keep seeing the same things again and again.

graph showing the Number of usability problems found vs. a number of test participants.
Number of usability problems found vs. a number of test participants. Image by NNGroup.

Time is another factor that makes the product team focus on testing with fewer test participants. “Being able to fit this into your schedule is more important than having some huge sample size,” Walter said.

Design the tasks

Create the workflow that the test participants will work through and make your objectives clear. You want to observe the range of errors or challenges that the user experiences. That’s why it’s vital to make tasks as realistic as possible. Tasks should be created based on real scenarios of interactions with a product. For example, for the eCommerce website, the task can be purchasing a particular type of product.

Walter recommends asking them to use what’s called talk (or think) aloud protocol, encouraging the user to talk through their experiences and frustrations.

“When they’re speaking aloud you can get into their head a little more easily and understand where they’re getting confused,” he said. “It can help you understand things like maybe this language isn’t very clear here. Maybe the navigation isn’t organized very well. Maybe the primary call to action on the page is not as apparent as we thought it was.”

At the same time, it’s vital not to lead users. Do not say or do things that can influence the user’s natural behavior. For example, when testing product purchase flow on an eCommerce website, it’s better to avoid telling users what they need to do in order to find a particular product.

Last but not least, try to record the process of interaction. It’s possible to record user interactions using an app like HotJar. It will give you something to refer back to and identify points where the users struggled.

Why the design team, or a representative of the design team, needs to be involved in usability testing

The answer is empathy. Being able to see how real users interact with your product, what problems they face is much more powerful rather than reading a report about the usability problems they experienced.

“You want the people that are designing and building the software to squirm in their seat as they watch the customer struggle and get confused because if they feel that pain and discomfort, they’re going to run straight back to their desk to fix it,” Walter said.

If someone is merely relaying information back to the design team, a lot can get lost in translation.

“It’s best to spend a few bucks, buy some lunch and invite those stakeholders to come eat and watch these usability tests happen live, or watch the videos—that often can work really well too.”

Conduct a quick interview after the session

Debrief is an essential part of usability testing methods. A quick chat with the test participants after the testing session can sometimes expose interesting insights. Schedule 10-15 minutes to ask a few simple questions about the product, tasks, and overall impression that the test participant has. It’s easy to start the conversation by asking questions like “What was the hardest part?” or “What would you suggest to improve in the current design?” Follow-up those questions with clarifying “Why?” questions

Business man interviewing a female in an office
Ask open-ended questions after the testing session. Image by bnenin.

A few more things to keep in mind

Be sure to conduct extensive QA testing before doing any usability testing or else you could end up wasting a bunch of people’s time, including your own. If you know that parts of your product aren’t finished, either avoid creating tasks that require interacting with them or explain to test participants that those elements aren’t done yet.

It’s also important to recognize the role human emotions play in testing, using it to both acknowledge your users and fuel your problem-solving.

“You watch customers that get super frustrated and lost and they start to feel dumb, which is why it’s really important to tell them at the beginning that we’re testing the software, not you. They feel like there is a spotlight on them and if they can’t figure something out then embarrassment is heightened, frustration is heightened,” Walter said. “Generally I see that as a good thing especially if you have stakeholders watching that usability test.”

And finally, don’t lose sight of what usability testing is all about.

“A lot of assumptions are made in the design process of how people will use it, but there’s no hypothesis of where people are going to fall apart,” Walter said. “[Usability testing] is mainly just getting a first look at how people actually use this thing you’ve designed in the real world.”

The whole point is to ensure you’re releasing the best product possible into the world, one that not only meets the objective but is also something you as a designer can be proud of.


The goal of usability testing is to ensure that people you design for can use your product. The earlier you understand this, the safer you will feel. That’s why usability testing should be baked into the design process right from the very beginning and support it along the way.