Human nature makes us want to help someone find what they’re looking for. Have you ever asked a tourist with a map if they need directions, or a small child tearing through multiple drawers what they are searching for?

In a similar way, user observation testing provides us with a valuable way to help define user experience on a computer or mobile device. Simply defined, it is the process of asking members of your target audience to complete specific tasks while you look on. But here’s the tricky part: you can’t help them find their way.

While you may have been staring at the wireframe or prototype for weeks — and know the navigation like the back of your hand — you can’t suggest they keep scrolling, or that they should look in the footer, or,  “Can’t you see it? It’s right there!”

The results you see when you stand back and observe will often surprise you, and ultimately ensure that the most important people guide the final functionality of what you’re creating: the users.

When you’re in the process of defining a project schedule, time should be set aside specifically for user observation testing. Whether you’re an information architect, user experience designer, or interactive producer, it’s unlikely you’ll think of everything. Even if personas are used to define the target audience, it’s impossible to actually think like 4 or 5 unique people.

Further, when working on a website redesign, we must also factor in the preconceived notions of functionality that users may be bringing with them from the previous version of the site. There are many guidelines to follow when conducting testing, but overall, one rule matters most: test early, and test often. No matter how it happens, whether formally or informally, testing one person is always better than testing none.

The key to effective user testing is setting the stage to help your participants feel at ease. Users who feel comfortable are more likely to spend an amount of time similar to what that they would normally allot to completing a task. If participants are nervous, they may rush through the site, clicking around too quickly to properly read the navigation. Or, conversely, participants may be hesitant to say that they are unable to complete a task for fear of disappointing.

Suggestions for setting the stage of a productive user observation session:

  • Wear something nice but casual
  • Make sure to arrive early to get set up
  • Give clear instructions to each participant:
    • Ask the user to take notes so you can compile their observations later, and ask if you can take notes, too
    • Establish the time frame of roughly 15 – 20 minutes
    • Ask them to speak out loud about what they are expecting, and/or thinking while working through each task
    • Let them know that if a task cannot be completed they may move on to the next at anytime, and you will be unable to answer any questions
  • Take 10 minutes between participants to write additional notes, including first impressions, task completion rates, and their observations
  • Consider using a screen and video capture tool like Camtasia to record user responses
  • Ask for overall feedback from the participant — once the tasks are finished
  • Testing in person is ideal, but there are also online resources (I like TryMyUi) that allow you to send out user observation tasks and instructions to a chosen demographic, and receive video footage in return, as well as responses to overall questions, if included.

If you do make the choice to factor in testing to the overall schedule, be sure to keep three things in mind: test early, test often, and watch quietly.