User testing vs usability testing: the names may sound the same, but there’s actually a very big difference between the two. In this guide, we give an overview of both – looking at the types of user testing and usability testing out there, and highlighting when might be best to use one over the other.
Both user testing and usability testing aim to uncover insights directly from the user. But ultimately, they assess different things and typically come at different stages in the design process.
Even so, us experts still use the two terms interchangeably sometimes – which can make things confusing. The truth is, user testing is a broad term often used to refer to all types of user research.
So, today, we thought it’d be wise to clarify the real difference between user testing vs usability testing.
What is user testing?
It’s a form of discovery research that aims to understand your users’ needs, desires, pain points, preferences, interests, and more. In other words, it’s about checking to see whether your target audience would actually be interested in what you’re offering.
User testing helps validate ideas and define a better product by understanding what could work well – and what might not – with the market you’re trying to reach. It uncovers how your audience feels about your product and what you should prioritise or modify moving forward in the development stage.
Types of user testing
The most common and effective types of user testing which get the best actionable insights include:
focus groups (in-person or online)
interviews (groups or one-to-one).
These are just examples too. There are so many other methods that can give you different quantitative or qualitative results depending on the assumption/problem.
What is usability testing?
The name pretty much says it all. Usability testing tests the usability of a product. In other words, it checks to see whether a product is user-friendly and if the functions and features are working as they should (ie. whether a website is easy to navigate or whether specific site content is easy to find).
Types of usability testing
Most usability testing methods involve getting participants to engage with your product and perform certain tasks (for example, an online shop, testing its website might ask participants to create a personal account or browse products).
Such tasks can also include both moderated and unmoderated observations (with or without a researcher observing and monitoring them). What to choose between the two comes down to whether you want to moderate the observation and get real-time feedback based on specific questions – or you’re happy for participants to be left to their own devices for later post-test analysis.
Usability testing can focus on one or more aspects of the interaction between a user and an interface, for example:
Visual interface and appearance — The look and feel of an interface.
Efficiency and findability – How easily users perform a specific task or find a specific piece of content.
Content – Is the context understandable? Is the tone of voice appropriate?
Accessibility – Are people with impairments able to navigate the product as easily as those without?
Whilst we’re here, let’s explain a little more about accessibility training.
It’s important to note that usability testing often overlaps with accessibility testing. In the EU and other countries, it is also mandatory to be compliant with the AA level of these WCAG guidelines. Being compliant ensures that all of your digital artefacts are accessible to people with disabilities, ie. cognitive impairments, people with visual impairments, colour blindness, etc.
This kind of testing usually is performed in 2 stages:
Automatic tools that detect any accessibility issue in the code.
Recruiting and testing with different impairments. It’s important to recruit users with a variety of impairments to ensure all bases are covered.
Usually, those testers (at least those with visual impairments) require the use of assistive technology such as screen readers to help them. So it’s important that the digital artifact doesn’t inhibit the use of those technologies.
User testing vs usability testing: the key differences…
Now we’ve explained them both, let’s outline the key differences that stand out most.
The overall purpose
User testing tends to be a much broader activity where you can gain all kinds of feedback about a brand or service in general (ie. how they might feel and think when using your product), whereas usability testing acts as a diagnostic tool with the focus more about a specific interaction and functionality of a touch point.
User testing is more of a psychological probe. You’re trying to understand the reasoning and logic behind users as a whole, then usability testing invites users to interact with an existing digital product.
User testing is a versatile tool that can be carried out at pretty much all stages of the development process: at the beginning to research your audience or towards the end to validate a hypothesis. But usability testing requires at least some form of a proposed prototype, preferably a high-fidelity prototype with as much detail as possible. You can still run usability testing on a low-fidelity mockup or prototype (for example, to test the flow of a basic interface), but the more detailed it is, the more precise feedback you’ll gain.
User testing vs usability testing: when should you use each?
We’ve just touched on this, but let’s spell it out a little more.
While all types of usability testing are only achievable once you’ve got a product prototype to test, user testing can be carried out for all sorts of reasons along the product development journey. To know which type of test you might need, start by determining your objectives.
If it’s to better understand user feelings and opinions, we’d recommend carrying out a survey for quantitive data and user interviews/focus groups for qualitative data. Or if you’ve got a prototype ready to test, usability tools like a prototype test or a first-click test can help uncover unwanted snags.
Ready to validate your prototype? Check out our prototype test FAQ blog which sets out best practices, support and top mistakes to avoid.
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