Usability Testing: What Is It?

For the rest of this week and into next, I’ll be conducting usability tests with about 20 current undergraduate students. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, but what does usability testing mean?

Basically, students will be coming to my office one-on-one to use the University homepage as a starting point to accomplish a set of pre-selected tasks. They will also get a chance to do some tasks that are important to them — things they do frequently or have done recently. During this time I ask the students to “think out loud.” If they’ve paused for a minute, what are they looking for? Why did the click on a particular link, or search for a particular term? What aren’t they seeing that they expected to see? Each session takes only about 45 minutes, and each student’s actions on the screen and comments are recorded for future reference.

This approach is what I call the Steve Krug-ian model of usability testing. Steve Krug is famous in usability circles for his book and philosophy of the same name: Don’t Make Me Think. His basic point is that you will learn far more about the success of your website design (or the design of anything really: a coffeemaker, a DVD player, etc.) by watching three people actually try to use it than you would if you sent out hundreds of surveys or conducted dozens of focus groups.

Because unlike focus groups and surveys, usability testing is more concerned with what users can do or not do on a website than what users like or don’t like about a website. Of course you want to design a site that most people find attractive and pleasing, but so much about design and aesthetics is subjective. One person’s “rich and elegant” is another person’s “dark and depressing.” One person’s “clean and simple” is another person’s “stark and boring.”

The goal of usability is to get at what works or doesn’t work. For example, if half the people you test never notice the search box, or can’t find the campus map, this is a bad thing. But if some people think the search button should be blue, and others think it should be white … well, we could go back and forth about that all day.

More updates on what these tests reveal will be included here in future posts, so stay tuned!


4 thoughts on “Usability Testing: What Is It?

  1. I am a doctoral student at the Warner School and like the UR web pages. One suggestion would be to reduce the size of the image on the home page so that you don’t have to scroll to get to the links (myRochester, for example) off of the home page. I work in Educational Technology at Monroe Community College, so I appreciate the UR providing an opportunity for the end user community to provide input.

  2. Hi Lori,

    I absolutely love the website design (and it keeps improving) There’s no competition, really, compared to many other University webpages. On a few occasions I’ve even gloated to my friends about it. I feel proud to be an alumni when I look at the vibrant yet simple and uncluttered design. Keep up the good work!

    As the homepage is the first impression many people have of an institution, it’s really important to have a good one–and Rochester’s rocks!

  3. All great points and in my opinion Usability Testing is critical. I use a live User Testing Service (such as to see what real website users really think while they use my websites. I am always amazed at what I learn.

  4. The only thing I worry about (and often bemoan) with the website re-design (and Rochester in general) is the alarming lack of consistency within/between sections. If you look at Harvard, MIT, CalTech, etc…lots of other schools’ main pages are essentially the same as you click between things like the About, Admissions, and other pages. Rochester’s is notoriously bad for that.

    As for usability testing on the whole, I wholeheartedly agree (see what I did there?). There’s incredible value in what people _aren’t_ saying (it’s usually in what they’re doing…or trying to do, at least), and the only way to do that is by watching them interact with the system.

    I really like the idea of blogging something like this, though, and I’d love to see some engagement from the CS department (i.e. Jeff Bigham, our local UI whiz) on the design side. Keep up with the updates, and we’ll keep giving you feedback 😀

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