Skip to main content

User Experience Tools for Beginners

A guide to help you find the right tools for the right situation

Usability testing is a hands-on, interactive assessment that helps you identify design flaws in your website that could be making it difficult for your users to find or do what they need.

Usability testing is not intended to help you find out how users feel about your website.

How to Conduct a Usability Test

Basic Idea: create a set of typical tasks and then observe your users as they try to perform those tasks.

Step by Step

  1. Identify the most important activities/tasks your users need to accomplish on your site. (e.g. find out whether the library has a copy of a course textbook).
  2. Develop realistic problems that would lead your users to engage in those tasks (e.g. I forgot my textbook at home today and want to study for my upcoming quiz while I'm on-campus.  Does the library have a copy?).
  3. Recruit representatives from your group of potential website users.  If your site has a typical user, it will be easy.  If not, and most library web sites do not have a single typical user, you'll need to recruit subjects across the spectrum of users. You generally only need 5 observations for each task to find the major flaws in your site. 
  4. Present your recruits with the problems/tasks you developed, and observe how they interact with your website.  You can do this in a couple of ways:
    • Direct observation - sit in the room with them as they work through the tasks, frequently you need more than one person for this (one person to interact with the user and another to take detailed notes)
    • Indirect observation - use a software application (see the tools section for suggestions) to make a screen capture of your users as they perform the tasks.
  5. Analyze the paths your users take through your website.  It is really terrific if you can get them to talk through their decision making process as they perform the tasks. 
  6. Make changes to your site based on what you observe.  Some common types of changes that come from usability testing:
    • Clarifying language
      removing jargon, adding natural language
    • De-cluttering pages
      once you identify the critical tasks, it makes you realize how much more junk you have on your home page
    • Bringing important pages closer to the home page
      when you see users having to make 4-5 clicks to get to an important resource, and maybe giving up before they get there.
    • Grouping information and links so that tasks that commonly go together are "closer" to each other on your site.
      for example: putting a link to document delivery on your databases page and your Ask a Librarian page

  7. Do it again (and again, and again).

Usability Pitfalls

Scenario Writing

  • Tasks are too specific
    Avoid directing users to interact with a specific tool; remember to focus on the problem, and let users figure out themselves how they might solve it using your website.

  • Tasks do not lead to actions
    Avoid phrasing tasks in such a way that might prompt users to answer out loud instead of showing you the steps they would take.  Rephrase scenarios that include "how" or "why" or "what would you do next".

  • Tasks include too many directions
    Avoid providing a series of steps and remember to focus on the problem and a more general prompt for action

Recruiting Subjects

  • Try not to create false categories of users.  For example separating users along demographic lines is typical, but are those characteristics the ones that influence how your users interact with your site?  Return your focus to your scenarios and think about why some users are successful navigating through them and others are not.  Then recruit subjects from all of those different groups.

Facilitating Testing

  • Encourage subjects to "think aloud" and explain the actions they are taking as they take them
  • Ask for clarification if a comment is unclear or if a subject does not explain an action
  • Avoid judgmental comments about specific actions, whether positive or negative, but instead focus on the helpfulness of the observation overall.

Taking Action on Results

  • Make sure all decision makers are involved in the usability testing on some level so that they are knowledgeable about the problems and are motivated by watching users struggle.
  • Deciding on a design solution is easier said than done.  Don't succumb to option paralysis.  Instead, make testing the solutions part of the usability testing process. 

Usability Tools

Screen Capture Tools

TechSmith's tool.  Can also be used to capture focus groups and interviews.

Another TechSmith tool.  This one is a frequent choice, because so many libraries already have it on hand for creating screen capture tutorials.

Ovo Logger is a top of the line usability testing application, lots of bells and whistles.

Mobile App Testing

Because we don't have any easy applications for captursing mobile app screens, the best recommendation I've seen is to use a document camera, such as an Elmo.  Here's an article from the Nielsen Norman Group talking about setting it up.