Usability tests are often perceived as the necessary evil or even worse, they are ignored. This disrespectful treatment has many reasons. Sometimes the project schedule is so tight, that there’s no time to properly test the new website or app before their release. In other cases, decision-makers think that usability tests are too expensive and that necessary fixes can easily be done afterwards. Even where the latter is true, it usually is many times more expensive, time consuming and might result in a painful initial loss of dissatisfied customers. Since we at Pidoco believe that usability testing is an essential part of the development process, we have compiled a list of the top 5 alternatives to classical lab-based usability testing that may work for you, even if you’re on an extremely tight schedule or have no usability budget.
1. Remote Usability Testing
Remote Usability Tests are quite similar to traditional usability tests. The main difference is that the test is not performed in a research lab and researchers and testers do not have to be in the same physical location or even in the same time zone. Instead, they participate using various online tools like web conferencing and screen recording solutions to communicate or document test sessions. One of the great advantages of this method is that the test users can complete a remote usability test while remaining in their natural environment, i.e. in their office or at home. This provides a more realistic testing scenario than a test lab. In addition, scheduling does not depend on lab availability; instead tests can be conducted whenever and from wherever is most convenient. In order to participate, test users typically receive a web link from you to a target page, which gives further instructions on the test including tasks and questions. The website or prototype to be tested is typically also hosted online. Usually, the test session is recorded in order to document the actions and comments of the participant for later analysis. While this type of test does not require a lab, it does depend on a reliable tool set, including a web conferencing and/or phone system as well as a functioning screen recording setup, if you would like to record the sessions. It is key that the tools can easily be operated by your test users and that they can easily access the test object.
You can conduct two different kinds of remote usability test: moderated and unmoderated. Running a moderated remote usability test means that the participant and test moderator are in direct contact during the test session, e.g. via phone or a web conferencing solution, much like in a lab setting. This facilitates communication (e.g. via phone or chat) and allows for direct feedback and help, if necessary. The test moderator can explain tasks or ask questions to gain more insights while the participant can “think aloud”, voicing his intentions or expectations and feelings vis-à-vis the product. During an unmoderated usability test, the participant works independently and has to complete the tasks without direct input from the test facilitator. In this case, there no real-time support or direct feedback is available.
Remote usability tests: Moderated and unmoderated by Amy Schade
A moderated debate: Comparing lab and remote testing by Susan Fowler
2. Heuristic Evaluation
Another option is the expert review. This systematic inspection of your product typically requires usability or UX specialists, who are mainly offer their expertise as consultants or via research center. During their work, the experts typically use and click through your website or mobile application like your target group would do, assuming the perspective of a typical user. For this, the researchers work on their own and in their offices or if necessary own testing laboratories. During the testing session, however, they pay particular attention to the details of your product and compare them with accepted best practices – the usability principles (heuristics). This heuristic evaluation is mainly based on the expert knowledge as well as on the latest human factors publications.
In their review, experts analyze a website’s or application’s
- language and style for simplicity, natural flow and native use,
- structure for consistency and logic,
- help sections, error and help messages as well as documentation for clarity and intelligibility,
- instructions and applicable shortcuts for clarity and findability.
Based on their findings, the reviewing experts typically finish their evaluation with a written report describing problems in terms of their severity using dimensions like frequency (How often does the problem occur?) and persistence (Is it possible to work around the problem or to solve it?) as well as the issue’s impact on successfully completing a task. Finally, the experts end their review by presenting recommendations and potential solutions to overcome the usability issues.
3. Quick & Dirty Tests
As the name already suggests, a quick & dirty usability test can be run quite simply and quickly and helps you review the usability or design of your product or an individual feature you are about to add to your existing product. At first, you can conduct a quick test yourself, if you critically review your own work. To do so, e.g. open your prototype and “naively” click through it like you would do when using it for the very first time. As this unbiased view is difficult to achieve, in a next step you can ask one of your colleagues, whether or not she is involved in the development process, to have a look at your prototype for a few minutes. Show her your work and see what happens. Pay particular attention to
- how your “test user” responds to your prototype,
- what she does, and
- what she expects to do with your product-to-be.
Doing so, you will receive a first internal review, which will usually help you to detect major inconsistencies, errors and even to get positive feedback. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to sit next to your tester while she is examining your product, record the test session, simply make a few notes or whether you leave it to your tester to give you a brief feedback (either in writing or in a conversation). For this type of test, you will need no test lab, no expensive tools and no recruiting overhead. There is no limit in running quick tests as they are neither cost-intensive nor time consuming. But even one session can help you to improve your work and to have a better product at the end of the development process.
Quick and dirty usability testing by Leah Buley
4. Guerrilla Usability Testing
Guerrilla usability tests are similar to classical usability tests, but require no test lab and make do with a minimalistic set-up. The idea is to cut down overhead and required time by catching testers of your target audience where they are likely to be found, e.g. in a coffee shop, a store or at an event. This works especially well when designing for the mass market, but can work with more special target groups depending on the context, and, of course, requires a more or less mobile set-up, often consisting of just a notebook with a screenrecording software or a video camera to tape the testers. Guerrilla tests are more informal than classical usability tests and aim at quick feedback, allowing for frequent testing throughout the entire development process. Guerrilla testing can be used to test almost anything – from sketched concepts to fully interactive prototypes to physical products – and works quite well, if you want to quickly validate your current work.
Depending on the product in question, you can even run guerrilla tests with coworkers or colleagues at the cafeteria. The test itself follows classical testing: The test facilitator will sit next to the participant, explain the task(s) and take notes (or have an assistant take notes) while the test user talks aloud as she clicks through the site. Like quick tests, this comparatively inexpensive way of testing can be used anytime throughout the whole development process and is an easy way to receive direct feedback on your product.
The art of guerrilla usability testing by David Peter Simon
Changing the Guardian through guerrilla usability testing by Martin Belam
5. Contextual Interview
While the previously mentioned usability testing methods can be used regardless of whether you are testing a pre-release prototype or an existing product, the contextual interview is most helpful when doing research on an existing website or app as basis for a re-design project or a planned feature addition. It is therefore more of a user research method than an evaluation method, but may be used as such or combined. During a contextual interview, the test users remain in their natural environment while the researcher sits next to them and watches them work with the product. Unlike in formal usability tests, the test subjects usually do not complete carefully designed tasks, but rather use the product in the context of their everyday tasks, e.g. while at work. This enables the researcher to learns about things like
- the general use of the product,
- the issues the tester faces,
- which technical equipment is used,
- how long it takes to complete a task,
- the environment the user works in, or
- the actual purpose for using the product.
The researcher can choose to only observe or ask additional questions to clarify or complement his observations. Of course, you may combine the contextual interview with traditional user tasks to be able to compare test sessions more easily, allowing the user to try out some things on his own and to complete specific tasks.