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Basic Usability Testing for Developers Ballin’ on a Budget of $0

Usability testing is a great way to get quick, iterative feedback and you don’t have to be a “UX Designer” to do it. All you need is something to test and an interest in improving your product for your customers.

UX in One Minute and One Paragraph

User Experience (UX) is everything that impacts the user. Many people think of UX Designers as producers of “shiny stuff “— button colors, style guides, graphic design, pretty mockups, etc. But anyone who has an impact on a user, from CEO to intern, designs an experience. Performance, reliability, software bugs, and even brand personality directly impact how usable your product is.

Why test?

Testing gives you a chance to find real feedback that’s not your own opinion. You can find potential software problems before you or other developers get them out to production. Testing gives you a chance to very quickly iterate through different solutions and prove out what is going to work (before you have to redo it again.. and again… and again…)

But don’t take my word for it.

Up to 15% of IT projects are abandoned and at least 50% of a programmers’ time during the project is spent doing rework that is avoidable. — Human Factors, The ROI of User Experience

In this video, Dr. Susan Weinschenk highlights just how many hours rework costs. No one wants to deal with changing requirements and constant new features added to their backlog. Usability testing can save the day!

Steps of a User Test

Form a hypothesis — What are you trying to get feedback on? If you don’t have anything you’re looking to measure, there’s no point in testing.

Some starting questions:

  • What do you think about this?
  • Would you use this feature?
  • How would you [perform an action — like logging in or printing something]?

Recruit participants — Participants need to be anyone other than yourself. While using others on your development team might be convenient, they will have the same internal knowledge and biases you do. Aim for someone down the hall or in a different department. Bonus points if you can get someone who doesn’t actually work for the company.

Real users are your best bet, but anybody is better than nobody.

How many people should you test with? It depends. If you’ve only got a few minutes and its a small problem, one or two might be okay. Aim for three to five though. With five users, you can capture around 80% of potential usability problems. After that, you’re looking at diminishing returns.

Set up your test — What do you need to test with? Can you show someone a work in progress? Do you need to just use something in production? The less work you can put into it (while still being worthwhile to test), the better. I’ve had satisfactory results with something as simple as a paper prototype and sticky notes.

'Test anything from Paper prototypes to working software'

Run your test — You don’t need any fancy cameras or a rigorous testing format. Just show your participant the screen and ask your questions. You may hold the laptop/phone/etc. and just show them the screen or you can hand it over and let them explore. Exploration will lead to a more hands-on meaningful test, but it also requires a more robust prototype that’s capable of handling all the random clicking (no dead ends).

Make sure to stress that you are testing your prototype and not your participant. Humans innately want to please others and do not want to perform poorly. Participants may try to hide mistakes or do something they might not otherwise do when alone. Ask them to talk aloud so you can capture any frustrations or prototype components that require too much thinking. Take notes along the way.

Analyze your results — If this is just for you, you probably don’t need anything particularly formal. Once you have a cadence down and you’re ready to start sharing or recruiting others to test, start by finding quantitative data and quotes that were particularly impactful.

So now what?

That was easy, right? Run a few tests until you’re a little more confident in your testing ability and then bring in other team members. If you can get a regular cadence going, you can find potential software problems before they’re at the “problem” stage.

Consider moving on to more formalized usability testing. This takes around 15min to an hour per participant, but you can get much deeper feedback.


Introduction to Usability — From Nielsen Norman Group, one of the founders of usability. If you’re looking to sell testing to others, start here. — This government-run website has a huge resource of forms, task sheets, and tutorials for anything you possibly might want to know about usability.

Why should developers care about usability? — This is a Stack Exchange forum post but the answers are fantastic for helping your fellow developers realize why everyone should be testing.