Content Strategy

Starting with User Experience: How to Run a Usability Test

By Kyle Harper on June 13, 2018

The world of marketing has gotten personal. Marketers are now spending much more time imagining how to connect with the individual customer.

Over the past decade, we've shifted from clippings and mailings to digital strategies and campaigns. We've moved from punchy copywriting and calls-to-action to customer relationships and nurturing experiences. These shifts all connect to one fundamental movement: We've stopped thinking about our audiences as faceless masses of behavior and begun considering them as collections of individuals who each require their own brand relationship.

It's no wonder then that user experience design has become a hot topic among marketers. When done correctly, UX testing can force your team to approach your brand from the perspective of an audience member. Successful UX tests allow you to feel what they feel and better understand what changes will best improve your brand's digital presence. What's more, an effective usability test doesn't require a dedicated UX team to run. With a few key concepts from the pros, you can learn how to run a usability test that will get your team started on the long and rewarding road of UX-oriented design.

Two coworkers discuss over a laptop

Image attribution: Raw Pixel

Step One: Understanding Requirements

A common first mistake when approaching a usability test is to try to solve for all of your site's usability issues in one go. This sort of all-or-nothing thinking makes it easy to accidentally design a test that's far too open-ended, hoping that it will uncover all your site's issues as users interact along the way.

The problem with this approach is that without any kind of guidance, your user tests will yield a range of results so wide and varied that you have little to no ability to pick out meaningful patterns.

Instead, seasoned user experience consultant Allegra Burnette suggests starting your usability test with a specific set of actions or questions in mind. "It's important to know your goals for a site and to gather stakeholder requirements," she explains.

Common areas of investigation include:

  • Following the steps a user would take to flow through your lead generation funnel.
  • Testing two versions of a new page you're hoping to deploy in the coming weeks.
  • Asking a user to complete a simple task like getting in touch with your customer service team.

The key here is to confine your test to a simple, reproducible set of actions so that you can easily compare tests from a sample group of users. It's also okay to link a few of these tests together for each user session. Just be sure that each question you're exploring can be easily segmented out when it comes time to compare user insights.

Step Two: Getting Inside Your User's Head

You have your investigation questions in hand and a sample group of volunteer users selected. Now is the time to assemble your team of UX experts, break out your expensive recording equipment, and turn your marketing office into a high-tech user testing lab, right?

Thankfully, no. "Recording doesn't have to be too complicated," Allegra says. "There are a lot of web-based tools that make it easy to run tests from wherever you are."

Whether you're testing a webpage, an app, or some other part of your content marketing experience, recording your user tests comes down to two simple needs: You need a way to record your user's interactions with your content, and you need a window into what they're thinking while they're having these experiences.

Capturing user interaction is pretty simple using screen capture software or even something as basic as a video recording of a user's screen. But getting user insights is a bit trickier. The goal here is to get your user's thoughts as close to the time of their interaction as possible. So while you could give your tester a survey or interview after their interaction with your site, it's better to get their thoughts while they're navigating through your tasks.

Towards this end, a common method for usability tests is to encourage a "thinking aloud" environment, where you ask your user to speak their thought process aloud as they proceed through your site. Depending on how you're proctoring the experience, you'll have the opportunity to ask simple clarifying questions (as long as you avoid leading your user's behavior), and when all is said and done you should have an insightful voiceover that you can map to your interaction recording as well.

Allegra also offers a key piece of insight to avoid one of the most common beginner UX mistakes: "User experience testing is not the same as user interface testing." Make sure that as you construct your tests and interact with your users that you give equal weight to understanding impressions, emotions, and intentions from your user, in addition to seeing if they prefer green or blue buttons. While your interface is central to interaction, it's essential to remember that behavior starts inside your users' minds and emotional responses.

A UX designer gives a presentation to her team

Image attribution: Raw Pixel

Step Three: Learn and Iterate

"[UX design] is meant to make you think about what your user is doing, what their emotions are, and what their goals are," Allegra explains. Even with a successful test under your belt, this is something your brand will only be able to achieve through a continual cycle of testing, learning, and implementation.

As you're pulling together questions, tools, and methods for your first usability test, take time to think about how you'll react to your findings. Does your development team have the bandwidth to react to suggestions on short notice, or will you have to wait for a future sprint to make more advanced changes? Are you committing so many resources to this first test that would make putting together a follow-up test difficult or costly?

Excellence in user-oriented thinking and design should ideally be a cyclical practice for your team, and this will require some forethought to institute sustainable practices. As long as this is the goal that you communicate with your teams from the start, it should be relatively easy to coordinate everyone in creating a manageable-and repeatable-user testing process.

Now that you know how to run a usability test, all that's left to do is put yourself in your audience's shoes, gather questions about your content experience, and dive into your first user test. With a bit of planning (and maybe a touch of luck), it should prove to be the first of many as your team learns how to build better experiences rather than simply driving behavior.

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Featured image attribution: Headway


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?