What is User Testing?

User testing is the practice of researching and assessing a full product experience through current or potential users. Generally, this type of research involves giving a group of users access to your website along with a list of “real-life” questions while observing them think through scenarios such as:

  • How do you navigate to a certain piece of content?
  • Where do you fill out a webform?
  • How do you play this video?

These questions are either written or given verbally and without any direction from the test administrator. While the user is performing the scenarios above, a researcher is studying the following behavior:

  • What page elements get the most focus?
  • How is the site being navigated?
  • How long does it take to complete a task?
  • What are the sensory reactions to the site? How about the body language?

When this exercise is performed on multiple users, the results can provide a pool of worthy data on user experience, leading to an enhanced strategy for improving the overall usability of the website.

Why is User Testing Important?

Although not everyone may think this kind of background research is necessary, results have proven time and again the value of this action. Ensuring the general audience can effectively and efficiently use your site minimizes potential to lose customers and clients. Identifying issues during the user testing phase rather than months after your website has gone live can save you from negative publicity, loss of audience, poor reputation, and most importantly, a post-launch update that is more costly to your organization.

To reiterate this point, let’s look at some real-life examples. Even a web app with millions of users can experience extreme financial loss by choosing to opt out of usability tests. Snapchat launched an untested and, therefore, very unpopular update to their app in 2018. This led to a $1.3B loss in the company’s stock at that time. Conversely, our team has personally experienced the effectiveness of user testing prior to launch. That same year, Clarity completed a website redesign for Chicago Park District. During testing, we discovered users were overwhelmed by the number of search options available. Performing changes as a result of this feedback led to a successful launch and an award-winning site design for Clarity Partners.

What Questions Should You Ask?

It is important to clarify your goals. You can do this by looking at your current data and analytics. Once you’ve figured out your site’s pain points, you can develop your questions. They should be clear and concise to prevent subjective answers. Your questions should also be task oriented. The answer should be a procedure. You want your user to navigate the site on their own. Having well-thought-out questions is the only way to get worthy information out of your usability test.

Some examples of effective user testing questions:

  • Can the user find a specific menu item? Is it clear what that item means?
  • Is it easy to find a specific page from the site’s search?
  • Does the user try to click on an element that isn’t clickable?
  • Can the user access all the information on a given page?

What Happens When Users Don’t Like the Experience?

In some cases, the user has trouble trying to perform certain tasks. If this happens, you must identify the exact pain points on the site. From here, your team can start brainstorming on how to create a better user experience.

When Does User Testing Happen?

User testing can happen at any point on the timeline; it really depends on the project and its schedule. For example, a project that consists of a “refresh” can begin with the designer creating an update. This would then endure user testing, and if it is well received, the new design would be implemented.

However, a larger scale project may require a few rounds of user testing. For instance, a high-volume website might first require research and design of a prototype-like platform. Once the prototype is ready, the team would conduct user testing on it. The feedback received is taken into consideration by the team and used to build their new site design. Finally, they would conduct a second user test on the newly built platform. If there is still negative testing, the process would then repeat. As you can see, this can become a lengthy process, but will ultimately result in a more positive experience for your audience.

Clarity has worked on a range of projects where user testing was initiated at different points on the timeline. With the Cook County website, we initiated user groups during the wireframes phase of the project. When working with Chicago’s Office of the City Clerk, on the other hand, we utilized user groups during the design sprint phase. In any case, user testing has been proven effective regardless of the point in time at which it is conducted.

Where Do These Users Come From?

There are a few ways to get qualified participants, but preferably you want a diverse group centered around a similar target audience. Going back to the example of Clarity’s redesign of the Chicago Park District website, the participants included a mix of both single people and those that were married and had families. It is important to have this type of diversity to determine what parts of the site are attractive to which groups. All testers, however, lived in the Chicago area. It is also important to have your target audience present since they are the ones who will be using your website. So, how do you find these people?

Ways to compile a user testing panel:

  • Hire a firm that specializes in recruiting participants.
    • This may be the most expensive option but, for larger websites that take many rounds of user testing, it might be the best option.
  • Recruit users from within your organization.
    • Having a lot of participants may increase your testing time.
  • Use your network to find potential users.
    • You may need to offer some sort of incentive, such as financial compensation.
    • A money-saving alternative is to offer a chance to win a prize, as opposed to giving each participant compensation.


How Many People Are Typically Involved?

For reference, the Chicago Park District website had 28 testers and 10 staff members. However, these numbers can fluctuate relative to the size of the project. An overall sample size is usually around 5 testers. Click here to read more information on user test sizes.

What Are Some Other Ways to Utilize User Testing?

In addition to user testing an entire website, narrowing the focus to a specific site element can also be very effective. This type of research helps to ensure the components of your site that drive functionality are user friendly for your potential audience. A good example of this is testing the homepage of a website to get feedback from users. As the site’s first impression, it is important to know how users perceive this page. Other focal points that are commonly tested include workflows, something especially useful for e-commerce clients, and menus, which sum up the entire organization of the site’s pages.

What Else Should You Be Aware of?

It is good to be aware of certain problems that may arise. Some things you will need to be prepared for are:

  • Scheduling
    • It can take up to 6 weeks from initial discussion to perform the actual usability tests.
    • It is important to have the physical space and equipment scheduled and ready.
  • Timing
    • Having a lot of participants may increase your testing time.
    • Procedures may take longer than expected.
    • Receiving feedback may also take longer than intended.
    • Expect for the actual tests to take a long time; this is not a quick process.
  • Preparation
    • There are a lot of notes to be taken! Assure you have experienced people to take notes in an efficient manner.
    • Be prepared to watch users struggle; it is important to let users figure out the procedure on their own. Employees who are familiar with the website may have difficulty refraining from helping.

Performing user testing is the best way to see how your site (or potential site) will function in the real world. Taking the time to do this background research can give you invaluable data and a clear understanding of audience perception. It may add an extra step to the process, but it can have a lasting impact on your website.

Gienna Gaeta is a Project Manager at Clarity Partners, overseeing many of our longer term, city-based projects.  Here, she discusses the importance of user testing at part of a overall effective strategy for ensuring builds or updates are examined from the user POV before finalizing and launching a new site.