A man with dark hair and glasses reading a user testing task in front of a laptop while a woman with blonde hair and glasses looks on next to him.

The difference that user testing makes. Why watching what people do trumps what people say. How to test usability. Examples from charities.

“I recommend you do user testing, because you are not the user of your website” - Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group - the pioneers of website research

If you believe your website needs redesigning, or if you’re mid-way through designing a new one then you should test its usability with your users.

Testing your website with your users always gives you a true assessment of how much it meets their needs. It shows you where your site is easy to use. And it shows you where it's difficult to use. 

It generates hard evidence and motivates you to make changes.

Even if you think your site seems easy to use, even if you’ve used a great designer, it will have weaknesses.

Testing is cheap, fun and you can do it yourself. Your users will also enjoy the experience. And you will learn other things about them too.

“Testing your website with users helps find issues you would have missed. It teaches you to empathise with your users. And it can be a very persuasive tool to use with stakeholders." - Hannah Wallwork, User Researcher, Neontribe

When to test

Test when you want to find out how your website could be improved or what isn’t working.

Test when you have a prototype of a new website. Test before you think it is finished. Use what you learn to improve it.

This article doesn’t cover all the other pre-launch tests your developer can do on your website.

Who to test with

You should test with the types of people who your site is aimed at, or who are most likely to use your site.

This could be the people who use your services. Or it could also be their families, or people working for other services. Or perhaps someone else.

If it's your first time testing then you might want to start with only testing with one type of user. 

A green post it note with the words 'user testing is such sweet sorrow' and a sketch of a person with their hands over their eyes

Key testing principles

Testing a website is very different to doing consultation or asking people their views and opinions. It’s more systematic and behaviour based. 

  1. Test early. Use your current site, or a prototype (early design)
  2. Value what people do over their opinions (though opinions can have value, after testing)
  3. Remember it's a test of the site, not them. If they find something difficult, it’s because of the site, not because of them. 
  4. Remain neutral during each test. So you don’t influence what people do or say.
“Prepare to do things differently. Testing might show your assumptions to be wildly wrong, so be open to making changes.” - Gem Hampson, Director, Hactar

How to test your website

1. Recruit users

You only need 5 of each user type. 

You may want to repeat the testing process later on when you’ve improved your site, but for now you only need 5. 

Don’t test with people from your organisation, unless it’s an internal website like an intranet.

Ask for consent to record the session.

Offer them the option to bring someone with them to the testing session, if they will find it supportive.

2. Decide whether to test mobile or computer version, or both

You probably should test on both. You can do both in one session. Spend the first half on a phone and the second on a computer.

3. Make a list of tasks

Think about the things that your users are likely to want to do on your website. These might match the type of things they call to ask about. Think about things like finding opening hours, finding a service that can help them, finding your phone number, submitting a form.

Then design the tasks you want to test. 

“Test the most common and important things first - your users will be confused and tired if you try and cover everything under the sun with them.” - Gem Hampson

4. Write a discussion guide

Your users need to be informed and feel at ease. Write a discussion guide to help you explain to them what is going to happen.

Check they are comfortable. Give them clear instructions. Remind them they are testing the site and this isn't a test of them. 

Check how you’re wording your tasks and prompts. Like with surveys they need to be carefully worded. Ask open questions. Don’t ask leading questions. 

Task wording is very important in usability testing. Small errors in the phrasing of a task can cause the participant to misunderstand what they’re asked to do or can influence how participants perform the task (a psychological phenomenon called priming).” - Nielsen Norman Group

5. Set up the testing space

You can test remotely or in person.

In person

In person you can test mobile or computer quite easily.

You’ll want to be able to sit next to the person testing, or slightly behind them, and you’ll want to explain why you’re sitting this way and be sure they are comfortable with it.

Use screen recording software. Windows 10 has this built in


If testing remotely then you’ll need to ask each tester to share their screen so you can see what they are doing. If it’s a mobile then you won’t be able to see their mouse cursor, but it’ll still work.

Record using the video calling platform’s record feature.

6. Run a session

  1. Set up the computer or device. Start on either Google or your website’s homepage. If you start on Google it can reveal more about how people might go about finding your website.
  2. Ask them to complete the first task.
  3. Ask them to share what they are thinking as they navigate around. Ask for their experience, not their opinions. 
  4. Listen to their commentary on their experience as they test your site. 
  5. Stay silent, especially if they find something difficult. Don’t help them. 
  6. Make notes.
  7. Gently prompt them to explain what is happening for them if they have forgotten to.
  8. Listen. Let them do the talking, not you. 
  9. Be ready for them to find some things difficult. Remain neutral so you don’t influence them.
  10. Reassure them that it’s the site’s fault, not theirs if they fail to complete a task.
  11. Repeat for each task.

7. Ask for post-session feedback

Ask them to reflect on their overall experience of the site only when you’ve stopped testing. Use open questions. You could ask them:

  • How was that?
  • What was difficult?
  • What did you like?
  • Why was that?

Afterwards you can also ask them what they think might make the site better.

8. Gather results in a matrix

Transfer your notes into a spreadsheet or table so you can start listing and categorising common problems.

Here’s a few ways you can gather and group and synthesis results:

  • Just Like Us used a spreadsheet (and see round 2) to systematically quantify results when prototyping an online resource database and training solution for educators delivering LGBT+ curriculum.
  • Neontribe created a deck to share results from testing a prototype website for counsellors
  • Global Link jotted down testing notes and took photos when testing a website for newly arrived refugees
  • VONNE listed verbatim responses on a spreadsheet and actions needed in response when testing a website to support climate action with the North East VCSE sector.

You may freely copy and reuse the above examples. They are licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.


“Absolutely every time I’ve ever done a test I’ve got an insight I wouldn't have got in any other way. There's something about usability testing that is just gold.” - Harry Harrold, Web Developer, Neontribe


Image credits:

"Usability Test" by l-i-n-k is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

"User testing is such sweet sorrow" by psd is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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