Pitfalls in Interpreting Usability Test Results

Usability testing is an important component to User Centered Design. Whenever possible, we recommend that businesses validate changes to their UX design with actual or potential users of the product. However on occasion, we’ve seen usability testing do more harm than good when project teams misinterpret the tests. They might take all results at face value,  misinterpret the user’s actual intent, or mistake a prototype limitation with a usability issue.


Usability tests are not the panacea to all design issues. A usability test is an important tool, and just like any other tool, it’s only as good as the skill of the person using it. So if you’re pretty new to usability testing, here are some tips that will help you interpret the results.


Know Your Test’s Limitations

Businesses frequently conduct usability tests using black and white wireframes and click-through prototypes. These are great ways to convey the product’s intended functionality and general user flow before the product is built out. However, it’s important for both the test observer and the participant to realize that this is not fully functional, nor fully designed.


Given that the participant is testing a limited version of the product, it should be expected that a user may encounter issues. For example, a participant might not realize that something is clickable because there might not be a hover state or because it’s grayscale. A potential misinterpretation would be that something isn’t discoverable. A more accurate interpretation is that this section wasn’t central to the test, and we’ll be sure it looks active in the final design. (The test facilitator will help the participant move on during the test.)


Observe What the User Does, Not What the User Says

We love opinionated test participants. They typically think aloud while going through the application and they will tell you how things should be designed, and that’s great!


However, the test facilitator will want to guide the user to talk about what they expect to happen in the product, and observe what the user actually does. Test participants are not designers, and we’re not asking them to test our product because we want their design ideas. We want to see how they interact with the product and draw informed conclusions from there (keeping in mind the test’s limitations). So keep your eye on what the user is doing and take what they’re saying with a grain of salt.


Recognize Who the Participant Is

And of course, every test participant brings their history, idiosyncrasies, and attitudes to every test. Embrace this, and know that some people will obsess about certain details. These obsessions should be taken with a grain of salt. The reason to have multiple tests is to normalize these quirks.


Usability Testing is a crucial step in the development process, so you want to be sure that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you’re interpreting test results.


Have questions about usability testing? Contact us and we would love to help!