Usability testing: What is it and why do it?

In the world of user experience, the phrase ‘usability testing’ is thrown around. But, what does it mean? How does it differ from user testing, and what value can it add to your designs?

Usability testing is a research method used to understand the functionality of a product. It involves a sample of real people using a product, and a facilitator observing their reactions and experience. The goal is to identify any pain points in the product and any opportunities for improving the overall user experience.

It may come as a surprise to many, but designers alone cannot design the perfect product. We need the input of the people we are designing for, to make our products as intuitive as possible. Usability testing achieves this by creating an opportunity for feedback from those best positioned to make suggestions – actual users.

Usability testing also reveals issues people too close to the design can no longer see, or issues they are unaware exist. Actual users provide an accurate and unbiased examination of a product, and the feedback can resolve any problems before the product hits the shelves. 

The terms usability testing and user testing are often used interchangeably; however, the concepts have their differences. It may seem like letters, but their differences will determine where they add value and their place in the design process.

The user testing research approach, employed in the initial development phase, tests the demand for a product or service. Using the example of a new reading pen, user testing would ask a sample of people what they thought about reading pens; what they liked and what they didn’t like. Were they looking for a new reading pen, and if so, what new features would they include?

Usability testing differs as it comes in later to test the product’s functionality and if the interface can be used with ease. The testing would involve a specific sample of people using a prototype of the reading pen to read documents, and test out in-built features such as the speakers or transmitters to hearing devices. Any issues in the pen’s function could then be rectified, creating a more seamless and pleasurable user experience.

Recruiting the right people for usability testing is critical, and the sample group needs to fit within a specific criterion of people. It may involve people who already use similar products or people who have been excluded from using previous designs. Through this process, we can uncover new opportunities for the product and new markets we were unaware existed.

Continuing with our reading pen analogy, we might recruit people who already use reading pens, like those with a lived experience of disability such as low vision, to help identify what works and any critical issues. We might also recruit other edge users who have never used a pen before and find, with a few tweaks, the design works for them too. This is known as ‘design for one, expand to many’, and it happens when we search for insights beyond our average consumer. Creating inclusively designed products isn’t just great for consumers; they’re also good for our reach, as they are proven to reach up to four times the intended audience size.

In the development or revision of any product or service, usability testing is a critical practice. Fresh eyes see our work from a different angle, allowing us to create work designed with, not for, our users.

To find out more about usability testing and how the Centre for Inclusive Design can help you, contact