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Talking to people (thoughts on usability testing)

I really enjoy doing usability testing. Partly because I like talking to people and partly because it’s one of the best ways of getting feedback on a design. They’re also a great reminder that people use the app for an outcome, not to use the app. Here are some notes-to-self I’ve made about it.

Before the chat

Find people who match your personas as closely as you can.

Be clear on the goals of the session. It’s best to have a few, specific, tasks. (Although it’s good to have some spare in case you finish early.) These might relate to issues you want to explore or questions you want to ask. Ideally they should be things that will make a big difference.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • What parts of the system do people avoid, or scare them?
  • What does better or simpler mean to them?
  • What are the most (and least) important features for them?
  • What assumptions of ours do we want to test?

It works best with a mix of roles involved: user-centered design is a team sport. Don’t have more than two people in the room with the user, though. It gets weird.

The chat

A session should last at most an hour. Here’s one way of splitting that time up.

Start with a warm up of about 10 minutes. Introduce yourself to the user. Ask them what they do, how they use the app. It’s also helpful to give them some context and reassurance:

  • we’re testing the app, not them;
  • we want them to be honest and think out loud;
  • if they get stuck or something doesn’t make sense, that’s a chance for us to fix something.

Use the warm up to put the user at ease and develop a bit of a rapport, human to human. I’ve found that sitting next to them, not across from them, is better. It makes it feel less like a job interview and more like a friendly chat.

Most of the session should be the tasks, about 45 minutes. These are scenarios for the user to work through, often bits from a Journey Map. I like to take notes by hand, adding circles and arrows, and type them up later. I’ve found that it feels weird being on a computer while trying to talk to someone, who is also using a computer (or phone).

It’s nice to end the session with a wrap up of about 5 minutes. You can ask the user what stood out the most for them, or what was the weirdest bit. These are for winding down and providing a smooth exit from the session. Don’t forget to say thank you at the end!

During the chat

Here are some things I try and keep in mind.

Focus on behavior, not opinions. Watch what they do, not what they say. Look for body language cues. Watch where they hover their fingers / mouse and listen to what they mumble.

Ask open-ended questions, but let them do most of the talking. Be okay with things getting a bit uncomfortable and them getting a bit stuck.

Don’t ask leading questions or use words that are in the interface. Don’t ask them what they want. Don’t ask like / dislike questions.

After the chat

After the session, collate and review the findings. Write up notes with headings and sub-headings and a handful of bullet points.

  • Organise and categorise the issues.
  • Highlight the key takeaways and summarise them in a concise way.
  • Make recommendations for improvements. (It’s worth looking at Impact Maps for this, as they tie things neatly to goals and specific metrics. Here’s an outline for Impact Mapping workshops that I wrote up)

Plan for the next session! It’s an iterative process and should have several rounds to learn the most from it.


Usability testing doesn’t have to be big, expensive, and time-consuming. You can get a lot of value from spending some time watching someone use your app. A little preparation will help you have a more successful session, though. Be clear on what your goals are. Remember to be quiet, to listen, and to watch.

If you'd like to read more on the topic, here are a bunch of my bookmarks tagged usability testing.