Get Started with Usability Testing
Carrie Hill

Search is one of the best channels for driving traffic to your website. But if you’re not seeing the conversion rates you’d hoped for, what next?

Most of us assume we can apply our in-depth industry knowledge and personal experiences to figure out why our websites aren’t converting. However, you are not the “typical” user of your product precisely because you are so close to it. In order to accurately diagnose why others are having problems with your website, it’s critical to observe them using your site. In fact, it’s the only way to uncover the real issues and formulate insights that lead to Aha! moments.

If your company has never done usability testing before, get ready to be blown away by what you will learn while watching people use your website. Here are some tips for getting started with your own usability tests.

Keep It Simple and Start Small

For your first usability test, keep it small and fight the urge to test everything. Choose one feature of your website to focus on and keep the number of participants small. This will prevent you from being overwhelmed by the logistics of organizing a large test and having to deal with a large amount of data which can be difficult to make sense of. Also, conducting a small usability test doesn’t cost a lot and is often key to getting buy-in on usability research from the rest of your team and stakeholders.

What to Test?

You probably already have some indications of where problems exist on your website. Looking at your website analytics is a great way to discover problems (i.e., product page, the sign-up process, checkout, etc.). Analytics can tell you where there’s a problem, but usability testing is invaluable in finding out why it’s a problem.

Once you’ve decided what to test, start by creating task scenarios—the activities you will ask users to do on your website. Good task scenarios are “realistic, encourage an action, and don’t give away how the interface should be used.” To learn more about writing tasks, read Turn User Goals into Task Scenarios for Usability Testing by Nielsen Norman Group.

In-Person or Remote Test?

In-person tests are great because they allow you observe the whole user, including their body language and facial reactions. However, remote testing is fine as well and is sometimes an easier way to dive into usability testing for the first time.

Moderated Tests are optimal because you will be interacting with and observing participants as they are performing the tasks. You’ll have the opportunity to ask follow up questions if you see anything that causes problems.

Unmoderated Testing is a great way of introducing usability testing into a company, using limited resources and budget. The logistics and overall timeline for running a usability test is greatly reduced by choosing this path. Services such as and make unmoderated testing fast and easy.

There are some drawbacks to unmoderated, remote usability testing, including not being able to ask probing follow-up questions of users. To read more on this topic, see Unmoderated, Remote Usability Testing: Good or Evil?

How Many People to Test

“Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.” ~Nielsen Norman Group

Research by Nielsen Norman Group finds that five participants will reveal about 85% of usability problems. After five users, you will be observing the same results multiple times while your budget and timeline keep expanding. So aim for 5 people, but if you can only test with three, you’ll still learn plenty.

Who to Recruit

You will want to recruit people in your target audience, so try to find people who are most likely to use your website and are similar to your site users.

  • People who haven’t been to your website before, or not too often, are best
  • Have an interest in the topic
  • The right level of technical proficiency

You may have multiple potential user groups (i.e., locals and tourists). If this is the case, try to include representatives of all groups in your study or perform separate tests with each group specific to their use of the product.

Where to Test

In-person tests can be conducted in a variety of locations—you don’t need a fancy facility or formal usability lab. Use a conference room or other quiet space in your office. If that’s not a possibility, consider renting a conference room or private office from a local co-working space.

If you’re testing a mobile website or app that people would normally use on the go, you can conduct your test sessions “in the wild” and see how people interact with your product environments such as stores, streets, airports, restaurants, etc. Services like allow users to participate in tests from anywhere on their mobile devices with mobile recording technology. Read more about Ways to Test Your Product In the Wild.

Observe, Don’t Help!

The structure of a usability test is to give users a task to perform and then watch them try to do it. If you’re conducting moderated tests, it can be tempting to jump in and help participants with their tasks—it’s human nature to want to help! But helping users doesn’t allow you to see their struggles and learn why they’re not easily able to complete a task, and that’s the gold you’re after.

If you’re new to moderating usability tests, make it your goal to say as little as possible once users have started a task. When participants ask a question like, “How do I go back?” answer their question with a question such as, “How do you think you would go back?” Before conducting your first test, take five minutes to read First-Time Usability: Moderating.

Record Test Sessions

Video is the most valuable tool for communicating usability problems to others within your organization. Whether conducting the tests yourself or through a usability testing platform, it’s critical to record the sessions so you can go back and watch them at a later time for analysis, pulling short clips to share with stakeholders. It’s important for everyone to hear and see the responses of participants and witness their problems first-hand.

Remote testing services will record video a user’s screen (desktop or mobile) and audio of the user thinking aloud while performing tasks. Here’s an example of what you can expect to see and hear during a test session:

Put Your Discoveries Into Action

Conducting a usability test is just the first step. In order to effectively solve the problems you’ll discover during testing, plan to spend some time analyzing the results and generating possible design solutions that you can test again.

Gather a few members of your team and have everyone watch the interview recordings. Notice and jot down notes whenever a user does the following:

  • Pauses when trying to complete a task
  • Goes back or has to undo an action
  • Triggers an error message
  • Can’t find what they’re looking for
  • Expresses frustration
  • Takes a different path than you expected
  • Fails to complete a task

Look for patterns across usability test sessions and develop hypotheses about what’s causing these problems. For example, if you observe multiple users having problems creating a password on a sign-up form, you might hypothesize:

  1. Users don’t understand what is and isn’t a valid password.
  2. The form doesn’t provide tips about password creation.
  3. The form doesn’t provide immediate feedback when a user enters an invalid password.

Now you can brainstorm solutions. Ultimately, you’ll want to decide which design solutions to implement by answering the question, “What’s the smallest, simplest change we can make that’s likely to keep people from having the problem we observed?” (‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy’, Steve Krug).


Usability Testing requires time and money, but it is the only way to definitively discover why users are having problems on your website. And once you start discovering and fixing these problems, you’re on track to improve your customers’ experience and the performance of your site.

Jump in, start small, and make usability testing part of your process for continual improvement of your website.

Also, we’ll be presenting on the topic at LocalU Advanced – Austin, TX on April 12th. Hope to see you there!

Posted in

Carrie comes to Sterling Sky with SEO experience that dates back to 2005! She has a passion for figuring out what works for each and every client and picking apart the problems that arise in our “it depends” relationship with Google. She has also been organizing and nurturing the LocalU Conference Series since 2017 – through to today – across a hectic few years of pandemic and back into in-person conferences again.