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User Testing: why it's important & how it works

User Testing - sometimes called Usability Tesing or UX Testing - is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You test your website or app with real users to identify problem areas that you can improve. But how does it work in practice?

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User Test taking place

Picture the scenario - you've had your website designed. You like it a lot. But how user friendly is it? Do certain pages have a tendency to repel rather than entice? Is your bounce rate higher than you anticipated? What about that comprehensive contact form: is it a nightmare for users to complete?

Once a design is signed off, or a project is live, this aspect often gets overlooked.   Ok, so your budget is tight and your launch date is even tighter. We get it – ignorance is bliss. But how much time, money and resources are you wasting backing a website without absolute certainty it does what it's designed to do?

While User Testing might feel like a luxury add-on you can do without, it can often be a game changer.


Why is User Testing important ?

If your website is more complex than a super simple brochure-style website, user testing is imperative, especially if you rely on online bookings, sales leads, sign-ups and transactions. In fact, in these instances, not carrying one out is pretty much neglectful.   Why?   User testing reveals issues you could never possibly be aware of. You might think you've ticked all the boxes and that your final design is as close to perfect as it's going to get, but one user test can easily throw a spanner in the works.

Without them, website systems are simply the educated guesses of designers and developers.

While these people are highly knowledgeable, it's not about what they like, it's about the preferences of the user.


How does User Testing work in practice?

A test usually involves observing a user as they attempt to complete tasks on the website in question. This can also be done for different interfaces and even different physical products.

It's not something you usually do once either, it's typically repeated from early development stages right through to the release date. Sometimes even beyond that.

The earlier you identify user experience problems, the better. That's why user testing is most often conducted on prototypes.

Here's what you can expect to happen during a test:

  1. The moderator gives a participant a series of tasks to perform in relation to the design – each task represents actions an average end-user would undertake once the website goes live.
  2. The moderator then observes the actions of each participant, recording the session so it can be viewed again later or by others.
  3. Once the recording has been analysed, the results get compiled. This will cover points of interest such as any aspects that caused problems, the severity of the issue as well as positive responses to certain aspects of the design.
  4. The design is then amended accordingly and tested again.


Remember - any testing is better than no testing!

One basic and really quick way to test – even on basic brochure websites – is to ask users this question: What do you expect to happen when you click on this?

Understanding a user's expectations and the level of intuitiveness of a design is massively insightful. If you ask multiple participants the same series of questions, patterns start to emerge and you can ensure your web design gets corrected so it mimics their expectations.   When it comes to homepage testing, ask: What do you think this website is about and what do you think you can do on this website? This will help you really get in the mind of the user and will help to improve their overall experience.

Remember, a homepage acts like a shop window – they'll either come inside or move right along. You need to check they understand the basic premise of what your business offers (and quickly before they lose interest).

A basic example

Q: What do you think this website is about and what do you think you can do on this website?

A: I think this website is about camping equipment. I can read articles, which will give me advice about camping and buying tents as well as other miscellaneous equipment.


How many people make up an ideal test sample?

It is always best to do multiple rounds of testing with a handful of people, than a single round with lots of people. You don't even need dozens of volunteers, you just need FIVE. That, right there, is the magic number and here's why.   No users = no results. Obviously. So if you just have one single user conducting a test, think of how drastically your insights increase.

Testing a second user will determine whether they too spotted the same issues or whether something new has arisen. A third, fourth and fifth user will add to your tally and bulk up your report.   BUT. Adding more users onto this will mean you learn less. This is because they'll end up spotting the same findings without anything new coming into view.

By the time you reach the fifth user you'll – hopefully – just have them confirming the issues of user one and two, motivating you to focus on fixing those repeat issues. Once they're rectified, test again. You never know, those corrections could've highlighted a different user issue.   DON'T just use a single user either. It doesn't matter how many tests you conduct, one user will have their own set of preferences and this does not create an accurate test sample. You wouldn't test a new skincare product out on one person with sensitive skin and declare it safe for all skin types'.

Website design is no different – it's personal (although don't think you can please everyone because you can't, there has to be a middle ground somewhere).


When do you carry out User Testing?

While it's preferable to test prototypes and initial drafts regularly while development of a new website is underway, it is in fact never too late to test your website – even if it has been active for weeks, months or years. It can also be tested at any point on a project. 

Low hanging fruit can be grabbed using onsite software like or, which will enable you to watch how users interact with your website in real time.

Got a website up and running? Try it for yourself. It doesn't take long. 


Need some expert help?  

At some point, you may look to get outside help to conduct more detailed usability testing. 

Here's how we carry out our user testing:

  • A rough round of initial testing is completed in-house, eliminating the most obvious issues first. We always use members of staff who aren't involved with the project so they can't say the things we want to hear. It'll be accurate and unbiased.
  • Beyond that, we look to use users that match the brand's ideal website personas. This isn't an exact science though, we're not overly selective because any testing can provide major insights and you will always get website visitors that aren't the end user but still want to research you or get answers to their questions.
  • Once the issues are revealed, we focus on fixing the most problematic ones first and look for the simplest solution so your budget doesn't take a beating.
  • We endeavour to ensure testers feel comfortable and don't feel as though they're being tested or that there are any wrong answers – we don't want them to respond diplomatically. We want their total honesty.
  • Similarly, we don't offer any advice or guidance. If they ask questions we simply reply with, "What would you do if I wasn't here?"
  • Each session is between 45 minutes to an hour long so thorough results can be compiled.
  • We record sessions (just what's on-screen and their voices) so we can watch them back and discuss. Much more productive than rushing to write notes.
  • Lastly, we test on mobile, tablets and desktop and do so at our offices. We have a dedicated set-up for users to test our website designs.

Whether you decide to carry out user testing yourself or choose to go down the route of paying an agency to do it for you, we hope this article has helped shed some light on the topic, convincing you to give it a try. 

It really doesn't matter how "finished" your website feels, how far along it is in the development stage, or how long it has been active (even if that's years) - the design of your website will always stand to benefit from being put under the microscope by the people who use it most. 

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Katie Austin

UX/UI Designer