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Usability testing: your 101 introduction

A multi-chapter look at website usability testing, its benefits and methods, and how to get started with it.

Last updated

9 Oct 2023

Reading time

7 min


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Usability testing is all about getting real people to interact with a website, app, or other product you've built and observing their behavior and reactions to it. Whether you start small by watching session recordings or go all out and rent a lab with eye-tracking equipment, usability testing is a necessary step to make sure you build an effective, efficient, and enjoyable experience for your users.

We start this guide with an introduction to:

The following chapters cover different testing methods, the usability questions they can help you answer, how to run a usability testing session, how to analyze and evaluate your testing results. Finally, we wrap up with 12 checklists and templates to help you run efficient usability sessions, and the best usability testing tools

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is a method of testing the functionality of a website, app, or other digital product by observing real users as they attempt to complete tasks on it. The users are usually observed by researchers working for a business during either an in-person or, more commonly, a remote usability testing session.

The goal of usability testing is to reveal areas of confusion and uncover pain points in the customer journey to highlight opportunities to improve the overall user experience. Usability evaluation seeks to gauge the practical functionality of the product, specifically how efficiently a user completes a pre-defined goal.

(Note: if all testing activities take place on a website, the terms 'usability testing' and 'website usability testing' can be used interchangeably—which is what we're going to do throughout the rest of this page.)

💡Did you know there are different types of usability tests?

  • Moderated usability testing: a facilitator introduces the test to participants, answers their queries, and asks follow-up questions

  • Unmoderated usability testing: the participants conduct the test without direct supervision, usually with a script

  • Remote usability testing: the test participants (and the researcher, in the case of moderated usability testing) conduct the test online or, more rarely, over the phone

  • In-person usability testing: the test participants and the researcher(s) are in the same location

Hotjar Engage lets you conduct remote, moderated usability testing with your own users or testers from our pool of 175,000+ participants.

What is the difference between usability testing and user testing?

While the terms are often used interchangeably, usability testing and user testing differ in scope. 

They are both, however, a part of UX testing—a more comprehensive approach aiming to analyze the user experience at every touchpoint, including users’ perception of a digital product or service’s performance, emotional response, perceived value, and satisfaction with UX design, as well as their overall impression of the company and brand.

User testing is a research method that uses real people to evaluate a product or service by observing their interactions and gathering feedback. 

By comparison with usability testing, user testing insights reveal:

  • What users think about when using your product or service

  • How they perceive your product or service

  • What are their user needs

Usability testing, on the other hand, has a more focused approached, by seeking to answer questions like:

  • Are there bugs or other errors impacting user flow?

  • Can users complete their task efficiently?

  • Do they understand how to navigate the site?

Why is usability testing important?

Usability testing is done by real-life users who are likely to reveal issues that people familiar with a website can no longer identify—very often, in-depth knowledge makes it easy for designers, marketers, and product owners to miss a website's usability issues.

Bringing in new users to test your site and/or observing how real people are already using it are effective ways to determine whether your visitors:

  • Understand how your site works and don't get 'lost' or confused

  • Can complete the main actions they need to

  • Don't encounter usability issues or bugs 

  • Have a functional and efficient experience

  • Notice any other usability problems

This type of user research is exceptionally important with new products or new design updates: without it, you may be stuck with a UX design process that your team members understand, but your target audience will not.

I employ usability testing when I’m looking to gut-check myself as a designer. Sometimes I run designs by my cross-functional squad or the design team and we all have conflicting feedback. The catch is, we’re not always our user so it’s hard to sift through and agree on the best way forward. 

Usability testing cuts through the noise and reveals if the usability of a proposed design meets basic expectations. It’s a great way to quickly de-risk engineering investment. 

I also like to iterate on designs as we receive more and more information, so usability testing is a great way to move fast and not break too many things in the process.

Julia Feld
Head of Product Design at Babbel

Top 8 benefits of website usability testing

Your website can benefit from usability testing no matter where it is in the development process, from prototyping all the way to the finished product. You can also continue to test the user experience as you iterate and improve your product over time.

Employing tests with real users helps you:

  • Validate your prototype. Bring in users in the early stages of the development process, and test whether they’re experiencing any issues before locking down a final product. Do they encounter any bugs? Does your site or product behave as expected when users interact with it? Testing on a prototype first can validate your concept and help you make plans for future functionality before you spend a lot of money to build out a complete website.

  • Confirm your product meets expectations. Once your product is completed, test usability again to make sure everything works the way it was intended. How's the ease of use? Is something still missing in the interface?

  • Identify issues with complex flows. If there are functions on your site that need users to follow multiple steps (for example an ecommerce checkout process), run usability testing to make sure these processes are as straightforward and intuitive as possible.

  • Complement and illuminate other data points. Usability testing can often provide the why behind data points accumulated from other methods: your funnel analysis might show you that visitors drop off your site, and conducting usability testing can highlight underlying issues with pages with high churn rate.

  • Catch minor errors. In addition to large-scale usability issues, usability testing can help identify smaller errors. A new set of eyes is more likely to pick up on broken links, site errors, and grammatical issues that have been inadvertently glossed over. Usability testing can also validate fixes made after identifying those errors.

💡Pro tip: enable console tracking in Hotjar and filter session recordings by ‘Error’ to watch sessions of users who ran into a JavaScript error.

Open the console from the recording player to understand where the issue comes from, fix the issue, and run a usability test to validate the fix.

  • Develop empathy. It's not unusual for the people working on a project to develop tunnel vision around their product and forget they have access to knowledge that their typical website visitor may not have. Usability testing is a good way to develop some empathy for the real people who are using and will be using your site, and look at things from their perspective.

  • Get buy-in for change. It's one thing to know about a website issue; it's another to see users actually struggle with it. When it's evident that something is being misunderstood by users, it's natural to want to make it right. Watching short clips of key usability testing findings can be a very persuasive way to lobby for change within your organization.

  • Ultimately provide a better user experience. Great customer experience is essential for a successful product. Usability testing can help you identify issues that wouldn't be uncovered otherwise and create the most user-friendly product possible.

What usability testing is not

There are several UX tools and user testing tools that help improve the customer experience, but don't really qualify as 'usability testing tools' because they don't explicitly evaluate the functionality of a product: 

  • A/B testing: A/B testing is a way to experiment with multiple versions of a web page to see which is most effective. While it can be used to test changes based on user testing, it is not a usability testing tool.

  • Focus groups: focus groups are a type of user testing, for which researchers gather a group of people together to discuss a specific topic. Usually, the goal is to learn people's opinions about a product or service, not to test how they use it.

  • Surveys: use surveys to gauge user experience. Because they do not allow you to actually observe visitors on the site in action, surveys are not considered usability testing—though they may be used in conjunction with it via a website usability survey.

  • Heatmaps: heatmaps offer a visual representation of how users interact with the page by showing the hottest (most engaged with) and coolest (least engaged with) parts of it. The click, scroll, and move maps allow you to see how users in aggregate engage with a website, but they are still technically not usability testing.

  • User acceptance testing: this is often the last phase of the software-testing process, where testers go through a calibrated set of steps to ensure the software works correctly. This is a technical test of QA (quality assurance), not a way to evaluate if the product is user-friendly and efficient. 

  • In-house proper use testing: people in your company probably test software all the time, but this is not usability testing. Employees are inherently biased, making them unable to give the kind of honest results that real users can.

How to get started

Your website's user interface should be straightforward and easy to use, and usability testing is an essential step in getting there. But to get the most actionable results, testing must be done correctly—you will need to reproduce normal-use conditions exactly.

One of the easiest ways to get started with usability testing is through session recordings. Observing how visitors navigate your website can help you create the best user experience possible. 

Take your first usability testing step today

Sign up for a free Hotjar account and make sure your site behaves as you intend it to.

Frequently asked questions about usability testing