Making things people want: Usability testing in Agile

Don't wait until launch day to find out if your users will love your site. A little bit of usability testing can go a long way to ensuring a winning UX. Best of all? It's dead simple.

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By Nancy Kha, UX Designer

March 08, 2016


Talk to any UX designer and they'll gladly admit to being a little obsessed with creating the happiest path possible for users. While best practices and experience give us a fairly good idea of what that happy path is, all users aren’t the same and behaviour changes over time, so it’s important to test with real live people.

We’re dedicated to creating user friendly websites that look great and are a pleasure to interact with. As we’ve been discussing on the blog, ecentricarts made the switch to Agile methodology in 2015 so we could deliver more value more quickly to our clients. The creative team has put in a lot of time analyzing our approach to ensure a good fit within the Agile framework. Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX, whose three core tenets -- Design Thinking, Agile software development, and the Lean Startup -- has informed much of our new processes and practices.

One aspect of our new process is usability testing, which allows us to gather insights from real users, gauging ease of use and overall satisfaction. It also allows us to identify possible problem area(s) in the experience, and make adjustments before we’re too deep into the project, ultimately resulting in a better product.

What is a usability test?

A usability test evaluates a website’s ease of use and tests with real users, focusing on:

  • Completing a set of tasks to achieve a goal. For example, a potential user goal might be adding an item to a shopping cart. To complete the goal, the user would have to complete the following tasks: find a product in the catalogue, add the product to their online shopping cart, and pay for the item through the checkout process.
  • Interacting with one feature of a website. For example, a user might interact with a list of filters to narrow the results of a search.

(When we talk about "real" users, we mean actual clients/users of the website. If that's not possible, though, anyone within the target demographic for the website or outside the project can give valuable feedback.)

A usability test can take one of two forms:

  • In-person, in which an administrator explains the purpose of the test, carries out the test, observes, takes notes on participants’ progress, and gathers post-test responses. Benefits to this approach include getting real time feedback and having the ability to pick up on small body language cues. Drawbacks include geographic limitations, having to find an administrator as well as participants, and the added time and cost of administering the test and reimbursing users for their time.
  • Remotely, in which participants follow a set of given instructions to achieve tasks. At the end of the test, participants typically provide additional insight through a questionnaire. Benefits to this approach include the ability to cast a wider net for participants, which offers a greater diversity of responses. Drawbacks include the possibility of missing something since you're not observing in real time.

Usability tests don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. While you can hire a testing company, you can also do your own in-house or "in the wild." Sometimes a quick, “This or that?” scenario put to a few people is all you need. 

For the test itself, you can use either a working HTML prototype or a paper prototype. If budget and time are concerns, low-fidelity paper prototypes allow for a quick turnaround of results, especially if you’re testing in-house. High-fidelity HTML prototypes require more time to build, but they look more polished to the testers and may more closely approximate the experience.

On the left is an HTML prototype, and on the right is a paper prototype.

Benefits of usability testing in Agile

While usability tests look the same regardless of whether your agency is Waterfall or Agile, when tests are employed is completely different. In Waterfall, user testing may happen close to or immediately post launch, while Agile methodology calls upon creators of digital products to test early and test often.

Testing early helps identify any problem areas early on in the process, which saves time and resources by ensuring the product will be one users actually like. Testing often allows the team to get user feedback during design and development, which in turn allows for fine tuning along the way. This results in a better product than that produced in Waterfall, as Waterfall relies on assumptions about users and their behaviours, while Agile relies on actual user data.

This is an image representing how usability testing applies to Agile. It shows the Think, Make, Test cycle.

Usability testing allows you to create better, more user friendly websites that users will love and return to again and again. Not only does it result in happier users, but also happier teams because problems are identified and corrected ahead of launch. After all, it’s easier (and cheaper) to make changes before it’s coded.

Have experiences to share? We'd love to hear about them.