User Testing

Why Designers Should Do Usability Tests

Published February 11, 2015 ⚡ Updated on October 2, 2023 by Stefan Rössler
designers doing usability tests

We did a lot of usability tests in the past – for our own designs as well as for web sites and software designed by other people. Just lately during one of these tests for some digital product, I made a profound discovery: UI designers should do their own usability tests.

What happened? I planned a usability session with 3 to 4 test users for early mockups of some user interface I had designed. Everyone else on our team was busy so I decided to perform the tests myself. Although I knew that it might be tricky and usually you should not do your own tests, it turned out to be a great experience.

After only one usability test I had to cancel the remaining sessions (which luckily was no problem since I tested with friends and visited them in their office). This one single test gave me so many insights about my design that immediately after it was done I walked into the office and started redesigning the interface!

Next morning I did two more tests – already with the revised design. Three hours later I refined my design again. Within only two days I was able to perform two rounds of usability testing without the need to produce a single artefact. No notes taken, no usability findings documented and no reports written on anything. I just observed someone using my design and then improved it to test it again to improve it again. That’s absolutely impossible if usability tests are performed by outside experts.

Outside experts are not very efficient (and often not even effective)

What usability consultants usually do after they have performed their tests is they write usability reports. That’s a problem because it takes days if not weeks to produce these reports, and after they are done someone still has to read them. This someone must also spend time to understand everything that’s written in this report (very unlikely) and then spend enough time to successfully apply the implications to their design.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Another problem is that whenever you design something, you try to understand everything about it. You know why you decided to place a button over there and you put a lot of work into getting the labels just right and to design something that reveals its purpose to someone using it. An external usability specialist knows nothing about any of these prior design decisions.

As the name suggests, usability experts are great at usability. But they are not great at knowing your design. They are just testing it. And although it’s extremely valuable to get an objective opinion from an outside expert (like really valuable!), it’s even more important to get real user feedback and absorb it yourself.

What usability experts do is:

  • They list discovered usability issues
  • Reference matching interface guidelines
  • Show numbers for usability benchmarks like efficiency and effectiveness

While that’s fine, it’s not useful when it comes to actually improving the design that has been tested. And that’s why people (managers) start to become sceptical about usability experts. They still believe that usability is somehow important but they’ve also experienced how useless an outside consultant can be. This is dangerous because managers and other decision makers have a huge impact on product design and if they decide not to spend money on usability testing anymore, we’ll end up producing mediocre solutions at best.

Don’t describe problems, find solutions!

That’s why we propose specific design solutions whenever we do usability tests or expert reviews for one of our clients. Sometimes we describe solutions verbally („change label to XXX“) and sometimes we even design sketches and build interactive mockups.

While this proved to be useful it’s still very time-consuming. Not only designing the solution itself, but also the process of analyzing someone else’s design to fully understand the problem you’re actually trying to solve.

If we do the same for our own designs, this complete process happens subconsciously. Whenever, for example, I discover a usability issue of something I designed myself, I somehow just know what the underlying problem is. That’s because I was the one who has created it in the first place! I understand where I was wrong then and have a strong opinion about what needs to be improved now. And because I’m still motivated I can iterate at high speed.

Of course it’s hard sitting next to someone who uses your interface when you suddenly realize he or she doesn’t get it at all. Intuitively you want to help and tell them how it works. That’s natural and it will happen from time to time. But the more you test your own designs the better you get at not taking it personally anymore.

By doing your own user tests you remove yourself from the center of your attention and focus on other people instead. And that’s good, because other people are usually the ones who will be using your product in the end.

Designers doing their own usability tests are so freaking fast and effective they can get better results in 30 minutes than an outside expert would get in 30 days.

Even more importantly it’s possible to test mockups and early design ideas and since everything happens so fast. You can make several rounds of user testing before even writing a single line of code. Now that’s a real game changer!

Design is usability – usability is design

I believe that every UI designer should do usability tests because usability and design are ultimately two sides of the same coin. You can’t understand usability without mastering design and you can’t master design without understanding usability. Both need to happen in parallel and that’s why designers need to do user tests.

And what’s with all the usability experts? Will they become irrelevant? No. Of course many self proclaimed experts will be finally seen through and soon get out of business but those who understand the implications will be more successful than ever. And the most important takeaway for people working as usability experts is – stop testing other people’s designs and start teaching them how to do it themselves.

Some clients may still want you to perform user tests. And that’s fine. As long as you work closely with designers and developers and become an expert for their product as well. Let them teach you about their prior design decisions, define user tasks together and even let them participate in usability tests. Finally, empower them to perform their own tests and provide them with the tools needed.

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