You should always, always, always test digital products with the actual people who would use the them. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find the time, budget, and resources to do a full-blown usability test every time. But that doesn’t give you an excuse not to test at all during development. You can and should run basic user tests no matter what, even if you are the sole, overworked, lonely person who understands user experience at your organization.

What You Need

1. Something to test.

Ideally, you’ll have a prototype or high-fidelity wireframes of your site or app. Make these as real as possible. Do not test isolated controls. Instead, give users the full context of where features exist in your digital product. It should also be possible for users to fail. If your prototype only lets users take the steps needed for the product to pass the test, you won’t learn anything about what you need to fix.

2. A prioritized task list.

Test your functionality in terms of users’ common, real-world tasks. For example, if you want to test a bill pay component in your prototype, ask users to try to pay their bill. Phrase your tasks as questions and avoid using leading language that suggests the answer. For example, “You want to pay your bill. Can this site/app help you do that?” rather than something like, “Pay your bill in the My Account portion of the site/app.”

Create a short list of tasks for users to complete with your prototype (no more than 10 tasks). Prioritize these tasks, placing the most common, important tasks first. Many users may not get through all tasks.

3. Users!

In a full-blown usability test, you would recruit total strangers who have been thoroughly vetted to fit a set of criteria. In the world of DIY usability testing, you work with what you have. 

Dos and Don’ts for Finding Users Without Spending a Bunch of Money

  • Do not test with professionals who have worked on the product.
  • Avoid testing with company stakeholders, whether they are associated with the project or not.
  • Seek out people in unrelated departments. Someone in accounting maybe? Someone from security or the janitorial staff?
  • Hit up family and friends. 
  • Find users who would normally use your product outside of testing. For example, if you’re testing a dating app, don’t test with married couples.
  • Vary age, ethnicity and background as much as possible, depending on your user base for the site or app.
  • Try to get people who aren’t very tech savvy. Older people and those who don’t spend their day in front of a computer make great picks.
  • Never test with digital power users. (In the incredibly rare case that your users actually are power users, you can ignore this point.) If someone knows how to use keyboard shortcuts to open their browser search, for example, they’re probably too advanced for your usability test.
  • Offer small incentives. Food is a great motivator. It’s funny how people sometimes don’t want to give you their time until you mention pizza or coffee.
  • Test with at least five users.

4. Space to test in.

You’ll need a set up where you can sit next to the user and easily see what they’re doing on their screen. Consider your users’ environment and try to recreate it as much as possible. If appropriate, bring in small decorations like plants, lamps, tissue boxes, etc. to make the area feel less like a test space (which can stress people out) and more like an office or desk at home.

5. The best equipment you can get for free.

Do everything you can to test with your users’ typical screen set up. If they usually access your product on a computer, use a computer. Make sure to have a mouse in case they’re not comfortable with a trackpad. If you have more mobile users, test with a phone. Your own smartphone will work in a pinch. Record the session if you can.

6. A sidekick to help.

Usability testing is easier with at least two people facilitating: one to conduct the test and guide the user and the other to sit nearby and take copious notes. It’s really difficult to do both of these at once during a usability test – we don’t recommend trying it. Instead, get someone from your organization to help you out. Bonus points if they’re part of the team helping to create the digital product. Maybe ask a: 

  • Project owner
  • Business analyst
  • Project manager
  • Marketing expert
  • Graphic designer
  • Developer

7. Approximately 5 total hours.

You can get your usability tests done in about half a workday. Prep work will require a minimal time commitment. Schedule five tests for 45 minutes each and conduct them back to back. You’ll notice patterns where users have trouble throughout the tests. Write down those patterns as soon as testing is over. Discuss them with your team, and get to work fixing the problems. That’s it, the total investment. And five hours is nothing for the kind of quality feedback you’ll get. You’ve probably spent more time than that in unnecessary meetings this week.

No Excuses

Budget and time are no excuse not to test your digital products with real people. You can pull off a DIY usability test for next to nothing in hours and money. For those few hours of effort, your product’s success and acceptance will be drastically greater than if you never tested it at all.

As you realize again and again the incredible value of testing digital products with real people, work your way toward including time and resources for full-blown usability tests in your project budgets. Recruit vetted strangers who meet objective user criteria. Offer real monetary incentives for better participation. Create official reports of your findings. Leave time to retest and make sure you’ve fixed users’ problems. Eventually, you’ll come to see usability testing for what it is – an investment that’s just as critical as any other part of your project plan.  


About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

Unlike planning your dream vacation to Bora Bora, usability testing is something you can do on zero budget.

Authors: @bekahble & @baileysendsword
Editor: @baileysendsword
Graphic: @djosephmachado