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A complete guide to user testing

Understanding user needs and preferences at every stage of product development is crucial in delivering a successful product or service that continuously satisfies and delights your customers. 

But relying too heavily on assumptions and internal feedback leads to suboptimal decisions, costly last-minute changes, and missed market opportunities. This is where user testing comes in.

Last updated

16 Jun 2023

Reading time

11 min


Incorporating user testing into your development process bridges the gap between user needs and product design by gathering behavior insights and feedback from real users. 

But what exactly is user testing and how do you do it? 

In this guide, we cover the fundamentals of user testing and why it's so important, along with some common challenges, solutions, and practical examples. You'll also learn: 

Get to know your users better

Hotjar's comprehensive user testing tools bring you deep insights into what your users think, need, and want.

What is user testing?

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

User testing insights reveal what users think about and how they perceive your product or service, which you can use to inform product development decisions.

For example, let's say you're a product manager at a software company that's developing a new productivity app. Your team has several ideas for features to help users track their time and manage their tasks better—but it's not clear which ones would be the most useful for your target audience. To validate and prioritize these product decisions, you need to conduct user testing (we’ll go into more detail later).

User testing vs. UX testing vs. usability testing

You may be reading this and thinking: user testing sounds very similar to user experience (UX) testing and usability testing—and you're right. Businesses often use the term interchangeably, as all three aim to improve the overall user experience. There are, however, some differentiators in scope.

UX testing is a comprehensive approach to evaluating a user's experience with a digital product or service at every touchpoint, including their perception of its performance, emotional response, perceived value, satisfaction with UX design, and overall impression of the company and brand. 

In comparison to user testing, which is considered a subset of UX testing, UX testing takes a more holistic approach to assessing user experience, answering questions like: 

  • Is the product desirable to users?

  • How does the product fit into users' lives and routines?

Usability testing, on the other hand, is a more focused subset of user testing, evaluating the practical functionality of the product, specifically how efficiently a user completes a pre-defined goal. 

Usability testing answers questions like: 

  • Are there bugs, errors, or missing or broken elements impacting user flow?

  • How long does it take users to complete specific tasks—their jobs to be done (JTBD)?

Caveat: UX testing and user testing are so closely related that we wouldn't blame you if you used the terms interchangeably. Just make sure to thoroughly assess your project goals and business objectives beforehand to determine which testing approach best fits your needs.

What are the benefits of user testing?

User testing has several benefits that improve customer satisfaction, increase conversion rates, and build user trust in your brand. Let's examine six of those benefits, and how they impact your product and users.

1. Identify hidden pain points

A primary benefit of user testing is that it uncovers pain points that were unknown to the team or previous users may not have reported. These insights help you:

  • Enhance accessibility: identifying barriers that prevent certain users—like people with visual impairments or digital literacy issues—from fully engaging expands product inclusivity

  • Optimize load times: pinpointing where your product may be slow to load prevents users from getting frustrated or confused—and abandoning your product

  • Improve navigation: understanding where users get lost or confused when using your product helps you streamline user flows

Pro tip: use a digital experience insights platform like Hotjar (👋) for watching Recordings to detect rage clicks. Rage clicks happen when users repeatedly click in certain areas over a short period of time, signaling user pain points like broken elements or confusing navigation.

Uncover hidden pain points by identifying user rage clicks with Hotjar Recordings

2. Validate hypotheses

When developing a product, teams often make assumptions about users' needs, preferences, and tendencies—along with corresponding hypotheses about how the product should function and what features it should include. 

User testing validates hypotheses by providing direct feedback from users, so you can determine which decisions to prioritize based on their viability.

For example, let's say you're a product manager working on a mobile app for a food delivery service, deciding which features to incorporate into the app. 

  1. Based on competitor analysis from UX research, you hypothesize that users will enjoy a feature that lets them track the progress of their food order in real time

  2. To validate this new feature, your product team conducts user testing with a group of potential users, asking them to place an order and track its progress using the app's real-time tracking feature

  3. Feedback reveals users like seeing the progress of the order because it reduces uncertainty about when it’ll arrive and provides peace of mind that their order is progressing as expected 

  4. The team can now confidently incorporate this feature into the app, knowing it’s been validated by real users

3. Understand user product perception

User testing offers deeper insights into how people externally perceive your product, like how they view and form opinions about your website’s value and practicality. Knowing this information is especially helpful for companies striving to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.

For example, let's say you run a tech startup that provides a new app for ordering groceries online. Through user testing, you discover that customers perceive your app as being more expensive than other grocery delivery apps. You could then use these test results to:

  • Adjust your pricing strategy

  • Reposition your product in the market

  • Refine your marketing messaging to emphasize the unique benefits of your app

Bonus: use Hotjar Surveys to sharpen your product's unique value proposition and identify market gaps. 

By asking users open-ended questions, surveys gather insights into user perceptions about similar products, empowering you to make informed decisions about future product development and marketing strategies.

Surveys offer a direct stream of feedback from your target audience, enabling you to further understand how users perceive your product

4. Improve user empathy

User testing provides teams with a more intimate understanding of user needs and concerns by directly demonstrating how they interact with a product—and providing first-hand feedback. 

This up-close-and-personal mix of qualitative and quantitative data increases your team's empathy for customers, allowing you to:

  • Improve customer loyalty: demonstrating a commitment to understanding and meeting the needs of your customers improves their satisfaction and loyalty, ultimately leading to higher retention rates and improved brand perception

  • Make better decisions: reviewing user testing data and insights ensures your team is aligned with customer needs before making big decisions

  • Improve contextual understanding: observing users interact with your product helps you understand how they use it

5. Reduce development time and costs

While some stakeholders may hesitate to implement user testing processes due to the perception that they’re time-consuming and resource-intensive, successful real-world companies have proven that user testing reduces costly, last-minute changes by identifying product pitfalls earlier on in the development process.

Some statistics on how user testing saves time and money include:

6. Obtain stakeholder buy-in

Showing stakeholders first-hand how a new idea is received by its intended audience builds internal confidence in the project and empowers stakeholders to make more informed decisions. This leads to benefits such as:

  • Improved risk management: identifying risks early on in the development process allows stakeholders to proactively mitigate negative outcomes

  • Improved collaboration: sharing the data and insights that drive development decisions fosters trust and transparency, resulting in improved communication between team members and stakeholders

Pro tip: use Hotjar integrations to get buy-in for new ideas. Hotjar integrates with tools like Google Analytics, Slack, and Zapier, allowing you to seamlessly communicate user testing insights with stakeholders and get buy-in for your solution ideas.

Receive and share insights from Feedback, Recordings, and Surveys right in your team’s Slack workspace

What are the different types of user testing methods?

The type of user testing technique you choose depends on your user's specific needs, company goals and objectives, and the stage of your product experimentation process. 

Here we explore seven common user testing methods, and the benefits and challenges of each. 

1. Beta testing

Beta testing involves releasing a near-final product prototype to a select group of external users—known as beta testers—to identify and address any issues that you may have missed during internal testing.

  • Key benefits: beta testing helps you catch bugs, generate product buzz, and increase adoption rates, serving as a final quality assurance step before launch

  • Challenges and solutions: obtaining clear feedback from test participants can be difficult due to conflicting or vague responses. Using feedback tools like Hotjar's beta feedback survey mitigates the issue with its pre-built, targeted questions that clearly capture user satisfaction and sentiment.

#Hotjar's beta testing survey helps you understand what users actually think about your product or service
Hotjar's beta testing survey helps you understand what users actually think about your product or service

2. Website recordings

Website recordings, or session recordings, capture real visitors' clicks, taps, and scrolls as they browse a website. 

  • Key benefits: session recordings identify user obstacles that may not have been captured by quantitative data alone, such as mouse movement across multiple pages, feature interactions, and scrolling patterns

  • Challenges and solutions: watching every single recording can be time-consuming, as researchers need to review large amounts of data to identify relevant insights and patterns. Use Hotjar’s recording filters to identify the most relevant sessions based on specific criteria and solve this challenge.

Pro tip: Hotjar saves you time by automatically assigning a relevance score to all recordings, taking into account factors like session duration, pages visited, rage clicks, and u-turns, so you know which are the most important recordings.

Recordings are also tagged with frustration and engagement scores, allowing you to quickly identify user pain points (high frustration) or examples of things that worked well (high engagement).

Save time analyzing session recordings by filtering by Relevance, Frustration, or Engagement score

Further reading: session recordings are a type of usability testing, along with other methods like card sorting, five-second tests, and eye-tracking

3. Heatmaps

Heatmaps are a visual representation of how users interact with a website or product during testing: where they click, how far they scroll down the page, what they look at, and what they ignore. 

  • Key benefits: heatmaps make it easy to quickly visualize complex data by aggregating both quantitative and qualitative information, offering a visual snapshot of what's working—and not working—for your users

  • Challenges and solutions: heatmaps provide valuable insights into user behavior but sometimes have limitations in capturing the broader impact on the overall user journey. A platform like Hotjar which has multiple tools such as Funnels and Trends, and easily integrates with other software like Optimizely X and Google Analytics, gives you even more targeted insights for optimization and conversion opportunities.

#The data on the left and right are identical—but the heatmap's visual display is easier to understand.
The data on the left and right are identical—but the heatmap's visual display is easier to understand.

Real-life application of heatmaps

When ClickMechanic decided to update their landing pages, they turned to Hotjar Heatmaps to drive their redesign strategy. Their goal: boost conversions as much as possible with a limited timeframe and budget.

The heatmaps revealed a striking insight: most visitors never scrolled past the hero section (the primary image on the homepage). With this knowledge in mind, the team prioritized their redesign efforts on the above-the-fold elements, which not only saved them time and money—but also boosted conversions by 15%.

4. Focus groups

Focus groups are a qualitative user testing method where a small group of people (usually 5–10) is brought together to discuss and provide feedback on a product or service, under controlled conditions.

  • Key benefits: focus groups and interviews provide in-depth feedback on users' attitudes, desires, and reactions to a product or service, including nonverbal communication and body language. This enables further refinement before release to a wider audience.

  • Challenges and solutions: balancing participation is a common challenge in focus groups, but a skilled moderator can address this by facilitating the conversation and ensuring everyone has a chance to speak. Structured activities also help provide a collaborative and equitable environment for all participants to give their input.

5. User interviews

Similar to focus groups, user interviews are a qualitative user testing method that aims to gather insights on user attitudes, behavior, and nuanced feedback—but in a more intimate, 1:1 setting.

  • Key benefits: user interviews provide a more comfortable setting for users to share candid feedback, allowing greater flexibility in the questions you ask and the level of detail you can explore

  • Challenges and solutions: scheduling and recruiting participants is a common challenge for user interviews. Using tools like Hotjar Engage allows you to not only recruit participants who accurately represent your target audience, but also to host, record, and transcribe your calls so no detail is lost.

#Quickly recruit appropriate users and easily schedule interviews with Hotjar Engage
Quickly recruit appropriate users and easily schedule interviews with Hotjar Engage

6. A/B testing

Also known as split testing, A/B testing compares two variations of a product or website to determine which performs better based on predefined metrics, such as user engagement or click-through rate (CTR).

  • Key benefits: A/B testing validates (or invalidates) hypotheses about customer behavior while saving time and resources that you’d otherwise spend on iterations and optimizations

  • Challenges and solutions: A/B testing may tell you what option is better for your users—but it doesn't tell you the why behind it. Complementing this quantitative data with qualitative user insights from heatmaps and surveys offer deeper insights to support your decision-making and win over stakeholder support.

Real-life application of A/B testing

Re:member, a Nordic credit card issuer, used Hotjar Heatmaps and Recordings during A/B testing to improve their website's user experience. By visually identifying which elements were most effective, re:member increased their conversions by 43%.

#Combining A/B testing with Hotjar Heatmaps enables you to visualize how users interact with each variation of your product, and identify which elements are most effective
Combining A/B testing with Hotjar Heatmaps enables you to visualize how users interact with each variation of your product, and identify which elements are most effective

7. Surveys

A survey is a quantitative and qualitative user testing method that helps you gather direct user feedback and statistical data on their sentiments and opinions of your product. 

  • Key benefits: surveys quickly and cost-effectively gather feedback from a large group, enabling you to identify patterns and trends in user behavior

  • Challenges and solutions: selection bias is a significant obstacle that occurs when the sample of survey participants is not representative of the larger population being studied. You can minimize selection bias by using tools that allow you to choose specific user segments and personas to target. For example, Hotjar lets you choose to only survey users who churn, so you can find out why they stopped using your product.

#Use event targeting to reach the right audience with Hotjar Surveys
Use event targeting to reach the right audience with Hotjar Surveys

Combine user testing and UI design with concept testing 

Want instant user input on UI design preferences? Hotjar's concept testing lets you add your designs as images to surveys, so you can ask users which version they prefer.

User concept testing increases survey completion rates by adding images to surveys

How to get started with user testing today

It can be intimidating to get started with user testing, but Hotjar’s here to support you.

Hotjar’s diverse suite of intuitive, easy-to-implement tools and features makes it a breeze to begin analyzing real user behavior, identifying pain points, and prioritizing solutions—leading you to happier customers and improved business performance.

Get to know your users even better

Hotjar's comprehensive user testing tools bring you deep insights into what your users think, need, and want.

FAQs about user testing