Writing tasks to test web usability


Writing tasks was one of the most difficult parts in learning how to do usability testing. Although I got a little direction for Steve Krug’s examples, translating those into practical applications proved challenging. Here are a few of the things I learned along the way. Call it the do’s and don’ts of usability testing.

Before digging in, you need to remember your goals. How will you use the results from this web or mobile usability test? What goals do your users have? What business goals are you trying to solve? Answering these questions will help you focus in on your website’s or app’s core functionalities.

The Do’s

  1. I find it helpful to begin with a homepage tour. Ask the participant to take take a look at your homepage and talk about who they think the website is for, what they can do there, and whose site it is. This task shows instantly how easy (or difficult) your product is to use and what people find truly useful.
  2. On a related note, ask participants what expectations they have. I find this especially useful in a live usability test when it seems the participant is surprised by where a particular link leads them.
  3. After a homepage tour, ask the tester what problems they would come here to solve. Another variation may be asking the same question via an Ethnio test. This will tell you their mindset going into the interaction. If what they’re seeking is wildly different from the problem your site solves, you should probably revisit your personas and ask whether your website is focused on their goals.
  4. Ask a question that clears the air for your participants. Sometimes, you’ll have participants come in who have something to get off their chest. Let them. It probably won’t be helpful to you, but it will clear your participant’s head and allow them to concentrate on the tasks you have for them to do.
  5. Users are great for telling you where they’re having problems. Ask them what problems they encounter, encourage them to keep talking about what they’re thinking. This is the strength of usability tests.
  6. Asking why is a great way to drill down to the heart of an issue. Keep asking the user why. What you want to get to is the motivation behind their behavior. When you know motivation, you can discover goals. Don’t worry about asking “why” too much, they won’t even notice.

The Don’ts

  1. Don’t ask a user “Was this website easy to use?” You may be tempted to because, after all, this is what you want to know. The problem is that the user is primed to make you happy. If you start asking their opinion about things, they will tell you what you want to hear. You need to pay attention instead to what they do.
  2. Don’t ask if they like the website colors. If they talk about things like color, “cleanliness,” or other design-oriented issues in the homepage tour, smile appreciatively and move on, that kind of information is notoriously unreliable. The next person to come in is just as likely to tell you that they like it better the other way.
  3. Don’t interrupt. When you’re the designer as well as administering the test, you may find it extremely difficult to refrain from jumping in when a person has a problem or heads off in the wrong direction. This is why we’re doing the usability test, you want to learn from their thought processes. Just be sure you’re still learning from the experience.

Bottom line, you are the designer. Don’t offload that responsibility by asking your usability testers to do it for you. Instead, listen for them to point out problems, rough spots and misunderstandings so you can discover where your website went wrong.

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