5 Tips for Planning Successful User Testing

In a perfect world, the first design would be the perfect design. Users would love it, easily interact with it, and there would be no need for changes. Unfortunately, that rarely happens, if ever. That’s why user testing is important.

Figuring out the pain points of your users and making improvements before you get too far into production will put you on the path toward creating an experience your users will love. Successful user testing will help you learn what works and what doesn’t as you design your website.

Learning more about your users and watching them interact with your design is quite eye-opening and exciting. It’s not enough to just call up a test participant and have them test your site, however; you need to have a plan in place. There are lots of “behind the scenes” things to consider. You’ll need to decide on testing frequency, determine what exactly you’ll be testing, recruit participants, and set up testing sessions, as well as many other things.

A successful user test is one that is carefully planned. Always remember, the user is the main focus during the whole design process and also during the testing phase. Be mindful of the whole testing experience and how it feels from the perspective of the test participant. These planning tips will help both you and the participants have a great testing experience!

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

  1. Have Clear Test Objectives
  2. Test with the Right Users
  3. Recruit Test Prospects Constantly
  4. Keep Regular Communication with Test Prospects
  5. Make the Participant Feel at Ease

1. Have Clear Test Objectives

women discussing objectives for successful user testing in large open white co-working space

It’s easy to want to learn everything, and this is especially true if you’re new to user testing. However, you do not want to bombard your participants, and remember: they don’t have an unlimited attention span.

Chances are, your goals are fairly straightforward. You want to make sure users can easily perform tasks and find what they need on your site. Before starting anything, make sure your goals are established and you can answer these questions: 

  • Why do you want to test the website?
  • What things do you want to learn?
  • What do you need to gain clarity on in each session?

Once you answer all three questions, identify exactly which parts of the site/features that you want feedback on. For example, you might want to know how long it takes for users to complete a specific task (like signing up for an email list) or if they’re able to find a specific piece of information (like hours of operation). When identifying the tasks you want to test, make them realistic and actionable in the parts of the website prototype you’re using for the test.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Ecommerce sites: How long does it take for a user to complete the checkout process?
  • Banking sites: Do users know how to transfer money to another account through the website?
  • University sites: Can students find the information they need to confidently choose and sign up for classes?

2. Test with the Right Users

two men discussing tips for user testing on WordPress

You are not your user (no matter how similar you might think you are), so unbiased testing is important. It’s not about testing with just any participants; it’s about testing with participants from the right audience. Before doing anything, make sure you’ve identified your target user and that your participants reflect them.

Of course, it’s great to have a large sample of prospects available, but if you don’t have that luxury, smaller groups can still give you a ton data if they’re truly members of your target audience. Budgets may be small and time may be tight, so do the best you can to keep improving your website with each test group.

Why not just ask your friends at the office to participate in the test? It may seem simple and convenient, but they’re often too close to the project and may be used to it already. If there isn’t any availability for outside participants, internal staff may be an option—but it’s not ideal. I’d argue that it’s better than not testing at all, but it’s still important to do your best to find outside resources. Use your internal staff as participants only if they:

  • Have not been involved in the design or development
  • Represent your target audience
  • Are willing to give honest feedback

3. Recruit Test Prospects Constantly

two people discussing potential users for user testing in large open white co-working space

Depending if you’re on a team or designing solo, the responsibility of recruiting test participants may fall on you. No matter who’s responsible for this, it’s necessary to stay on top of test participant recruiting. This is often the most difficult part of user testing, but it doesn’t have to be.

Who will Participate in Your Tests?

Who do you want to recruit? This is the most important question you’ll need to answer, and you want to make sure you’re recruiting the right demographic.

For example, if you’re testing a mobile site that shows all the nearest rock climbing locations, you’ll want to target tech-savvy rock climbers for your session. Age, gender, income level, and other factors can also come into play.

Where to Find Participants

Always try to have more participants lined up than you need. People get busy or have things come up, so having more people available than you actually need will save stress later on.

There are many ways to recruit users for your testing. My first piece of advice is to keep a spreadsheet of all your prospects. It’s better to have a database of contacts well before testing begins rather than scrambling to find participants. Below are a few ideas on how to grow your database.

Email Campaigns that Call for Participants

If you have a large email list, there will likely be a lot of potential prospects that would be a good fit for testing. Plus, they’re likely to be part of your target demographic! This shouldn’t be your only means of recruiting, however. Since email open rates aren’t always the highest and some of that audience will have already encountered your site or services, it’s hard to gauge how many opens will actually turn into test takers.

LinkedIn Ads

If this is something you have the budget for or you’re already doing LinkedIn ads (or any social ads), you may find it’s a good way to target the demographic that you want. For recruitment purposes, this can be pretty simple. The ad could link to a landing page with information about becoming a participant with a form to fill out.


woman working on desktop in front of navy wall listening to webinar on user testing

If regular webinars are part of your marketing strategy, they’re also a good recruitment opportunity. The end of a webinar is a great time to talk about the opportunity for attendees to be test participants.

Include a Link to Sign Up in Blog Posts

If you’re already blogging, it doesn’t take much to add a link for a participant to sign up as your call to action. It could say something like “We’re looking for test participants like you! We’re always looking to improve our website and would love your feedback,” and then take it from there!

For blog posts that are feature focused or that speak to improvements of the site, it’s very possible there will be sign ups, since users often want to be early adopters and see what’s new.

Regular Beta Group

These are your core users, and the perfect people to participate in your tests. You’ll learn about their workflow and if your website is meeting their needs. These are invested users who don’t mind trying new things right away.

“Betas” could be a formal group where they know they’re in a beta, or an informal group where it’s more of an internal thing. Either way, this group of users essentially opts in to use beta versions of your website. You’ll get valuable feedback from them and will learn about any issues, which is helpful for redesigns or release planning.

Customer Feedback Forum

If you’re lucky enough to work with a support team, you know they’re the customer experts. They’re a good resource because they’ll know of customers who may be a good fit for user tests, and often, they already have enough rapport built up with those customers to ask for their participation. Find out how customer issues are tracked, since this may be a way to gain customer insight on proposed improvements.

4. Keep Regular Communication with Test Prospects

two people talking about user testing tips in front of desktops

Once you have participants, it’s important to keep them in the loop. It would be very disappointing for a participant to forget or not know what they’re supposed to do! Keeping a communication schedule helps mitigate the risk of missing out on the opportunity. 

A rough schedule should look something like this (but of course, adjust for your needs):

  1. Send the invitation for the test at least two weeks before the goal test date.
  2. Confirm that you received their response.
  3. Send out the first email reminder about one week before the test day. It’s important to include helpful information for the participant so they know where to be and what to expect.
  4. Send a confirmation reminder email one to two days prior to the test.

Here are a few pointers to make a good impression:

  • Keep test anxiety to a minimum. Try not to use the word “test” when talking to the participant. “Activity,” “event,” or “session” are better options. Also, “participant” or “user” are good terms if you need to describe who will be participating in the activity.
  • Make sure users know what they’re going to be doing. Share the goals and scope with them. What website is being built and why? Give them a general idea of what they’ll be doing.
  • Let them know if it’s research, usability, card sorting, etc. that they’ll be participating in.
  • Clearly list the date, time, and duration of the session.
  • If the session is on location, provide detailed location info, parking info, and a map.
  • Include your name (or the name of the person conducting the session), email, and phone number so participants may call for directions, ask questions, or to cancel if necessary.
  • If the session is taking place online, provide the link and detailed connection instructions (i.e. WebEx meeting).

5. Make the Participant Feel at Ease

two men plan user testing for a website

Before starting the test, make the participants feel comfortable. A nervous user isn’t what you want; you want them to be in a clear state of mind. Let them know if they feel stuck, it’s not their fault: It’s the failure of the design. Encourage them to speak out loud and share opinions. As the moderator, really listen (record or take notes, too), so you accurately hear what’s going on during the session.

Make sure the participant knows there are no wrong answers. It’s important they understand that honest feedback is the end goal, meaning that it can be good or bad. By only hearing the good, you won’t find out everything you want to know for improvements.

The key to successful user testing is preparation. These tips and tricks will help make planning the test easier for you as the moderator and will provide a better experience for your participants.

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