Usability testing refers to a technique used in user-centered interaction design to evaluate a product by testing it on users. Usability testing is a central part of the design process to help improve and launch a product (website, service or physical product) that is easy to use and mass market ready. Testing your product with real users ensures that someone without a stake in the outcome of the project gives you objective feedback and honest criticism. It can also help confirm or deny some of your assumptions about what real users need vs. what you think customers would find valuable.

Specifically for non-profits, you can integrate some of these methods into your existing client interview or survey process. In this article, we will review some of the major methods that we have available to us for usability testing and discuss which methods are appropriate in what context.

Usability Testing

Usability testing is a common term that usually describes a task-based user walkthrough type test of a product or service. To conduct a usability test, create a scenario or situation where your participant can walk through some of the major tasks that the product needs to accomplish. For example, if your product is an HIV drug informational site, you may want your user to sign up for an account and be able to find specific information on a specific HIV drug.

As the participant completes the task, ask them to talk you through what their thought process is and why they are performing certain actions if it is not clear to you. One simple tip for non-profits is if you don’t have enough time or resources, try conducting some usability testing with your co-workers who do not work on your project. This ‘discount’ method is better than getting no feedback at all.

Paper Prototyping

Paper prototyping is exactly what the name suggests, using ‘paper’ instead of digital prototypes to elicit feedback from users. This ‘throwaway’ prototyping method is good if you are in the early stages of your design process and want to quickly and iteratively make changes within a short period of time. While the prototyping fidelity is up to you (some people use fake hand drawn digital screens to convince users they are in the early stages), it is also possible to physically draw on paper your designs and test them with real users.

A quick and easy way to implement this type of prototyping would be to draw a few different methods of a design and ask your non-profit clients to do a few tasks using the designs you’ve created. An obvious advantage of this method is the time and money it saves. A disadvantage is that if you are too far along in your design process and try to gain too much detailed design feedback, it will be less accurate because your prototype is so far from being real that your users will not be able to provide as realistic feedback on tasks.

This method is related to the RITE method, which we will discuss in a later post.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is an excellent way of helping figure out a complicated or structurally ambiguous navigation or information architecture structure. Card sorting can be used to design or redesign a site map, settings, or main menus of various types of products. There are many online card sorting programs, for example, Optimal, WebSort, and ConceptCodify.

An example of an open card sort is to create cards for each of your settings and ask your tester to sort them into groups. Then, ask them to create a group name for each group. After testing a few people you can then do a closed card sort. This is exactly the opposite of open card sort, as your users should be presented with the group names and given cards to place into each group. Closed card sorting is an excellent second step in testing group names that you’ve already created.

Diary Studies or Longitudinal Studies

Diary or longitudinal studies occur over a period of time. The advantage of this type of study is that you are able to dismiss some issues that may come up during regular usability testing because it is the tester’s first experience with your product. Testing a user on key tasks may find issues that are relevant only in that one moment in time, but after using a website or service over time, some of the issues may be resolved.

An example of how to conduct a diary study includes sending or meeting a user with a physical or digital diary and asking them to record their usage of your product. Include generic questions to be repeated in each entry and ratings to see if their scores change over time. Because this method requires much more dedicated participants to fill out information over time, this method is much more time consuming and expensive.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are a very popular method often utilized by Marketing agencies to test the popularity of a product with a group of users at the same time. This is a method that is commonly shown in movies where a group of observers are watching a session behind a two way see through mirror and participants on the other side are trying a new product.

The key to a good Focus Group is a good moderator who can control the flow of conversation and balance the speaking times across a group of people. In a group of 7-9 people in a room, usually there is one person who is a more dominant personality and some who are more shy, so it takes a great moderator to make sure that everyone gets a chance to voice their opinion about the product or service. If you plan to run a focus group, make sure that your time is well prioritized and practice the session ahead of time to get a good handle on how much time each exercise should take you.

A tip for non-profits is to perform this type of method with concepts or new program ideas with an existing group of clients. If you already have a group of clients that meet regularly for other purposes, consider adding 10 minutes to the end of your meeting and introduce a few concepts or designs for their feedback.

Expert Reviews or Heuristic Evaluation

This is a quick and cheap method that involves finding a usability expert (or yourself) and asking them to evaluate your site or product, either based on their personal experiences or more commonly based on a set of usability heuristics called Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics. A benefit of this method is that it doesn’t require recruiting any users or clients.

A list of usability heuristics can be found in the Heuristic Evaluation chapter of Usability Inspection Methods by Nielsen, and more information can be found on the Nielsen website, which lists Nielsen’s heuristics as follows:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.


Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the user’s language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.


User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.


Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.


Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design that prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.


Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.


Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators – unseen by the novice user – may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.


Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.


Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.


Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Eye Tracking

Eye tracking measures either where one is looking (gaze) or eye motion relative to a person’s head. This method has come a long way in the past decade, in the early days of eye tracking technology, a participant would have to wear a clunky, heavy head set equipment that would track users gaze on a screen and create as many false positives as it did correctly identify what a user was looking at.

Nowadays, one can use a combination of webcams and other built in monitor technology to track a person’s gaze (albeit I am still somewhat skeptical of the effectiveness of some of the claims companies make) and not require any special equipment. Eye tracking has been touted as a method to help understand what a user is actually looking at on a website or product versus what they ‘say’ they are looking at or paying attention to.


All of the methods mentioned above are useful in different stages of the design process, and may be used depending on the amount of time available and your budget.  Confirm that the type of method that you are thinking of is right for the particular situation and to help you solve the particular problem that you are facing. For example, a simple website without many settings or navigation will not need a card sort, but may benefit from iterative paper prototyping to reduce the development time.

For non-profits, if you have access to your clients, it can be a huge benefit to bring them into your design and testing process.  Feel free to add comments below if you have any questions about what usability method you are considering for your own testing purposes.