Usability testing is a powerful tool you can use to evaluate the functionality of your mobile application and helps you ensure that users are able to navigate your app efficiently and effectively. In this article, we’ll explain what usability testing is, explore the various testing methods available to you, and cover some tools and best practices to help you get started.

What is Mobile App Usability Testing?

Usability testing is all about getting actual people to interact with your app so that you can observe their interactions, behavior, and reactions to it and make changes accordingly. Whether you start off small by observing simple session recordings or you bring multiple groups of people into a lab complete with eye-tracking equipment, usability testing is absolutely essential to ensuring that you're building a beneficial and enjoyable experience for your users.

This step in your development process is especially important because it helps validate the decisions you've already made about the mobile app (like interface design, navigation, and functionality) and informs future decisions like prioritizing new features or bug fixes.

Considerations for Mobile App Usability Testing

When it comes to developing your usability tests, there are three different things you need to consider: whether your tests are moderated or unmoderated, remote or in-person, and scripted or exploratory.

Moderated vs. Unmoderated

When you're planning your usability tests, it's important to determine whether you want your tests to be moderated or not, and there are pros and cons to each.

Moderated usability testing involves a moderator who guides participants through a testing session. This is useful when you need to learn more about a user’s thoughts and feelings about an application or process. With a moderator running the test, you can probe participants for more information, asking follow-up questions or having them elaborate on something they share.

Conversely, unmoderated usability testing is conducted without any kind of direct supervision. With unmoderated testing, participants are free to interact with your app without any external input. This can be useful if you are recording the user experience and want to learn more about their thoughts and feelings as they navigate through your app.

Moderated testing usually produces more in-depth feedback as a result of the direct interaction between moderators and test participants, but they can be expensive to organize and run. If you're looking to keep costs low, unmoderated testing may be a better option, but it's important to note that participant responses may be more superficial as follow-up questions are not an option.

If you're trying to decide between the two, a good rule of thumb is to use moderated testing to investigate the reasoning behind user behavior and unmoderated testing to observe and measure unbiased behavior patterns.


A person pulling a sticky note that states, "Run a usability test" from a list of eight different tasks.
Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Remote vs. In-person

Another thing to consider when developing your usability tests is whether you want to hold them remotely or in-person.

With remote testing, participants are free to join in from wherever they are most comfortable. Remote testing is useful because it doesn't require participants to travel to a specific location—this means that you're able to pull participants from a larger, more diverse pool of candidates.  

Here are some great tools you can use to conduct remote usability testing: UserZoom, Testbirds, UXCam, UserTesting, and Lookback.

With in-person usability testing, participants are required to meet at a specific location in order to participate.

In comparison to remote tests, in-person tests can provide you with extra data points, because researchers are able to observe and analyze body language and facial expressions. With that being said, in-person testing is generally more expensive and time-consuming because you not only have to find a suitable space, you also have to block out a specific date and recruit participants.

The key takeaway here is that remote testing may not allow you to go quite as deep into a participant’s reasoning, but it does allow you to test larger numbers of people in various geographical areas using fewer resources.

Scripted vs. Exploratory

Lastly, you should determine whether you want your test process to be scripted or exploratory in nature. While there's a lot to be said about sticking to a specific script and not deviating from it for the sake of consistency, a lot of unique insights can be uncovered with a more exploratory testing environment.

With a scripted usability testing approach, you can collect more standardized and consistent feedback from your sample of users. During the test, users are provided with a written script that they should follow while interacting with your app. The advantage of this approach is that it can be done in a more systematic and controlled way than an exploratory route, regardless of whether the test is conducted remotely or in-person.

Exploratory usability tests, on the other hand, are all about encouraging participants to explore an app, unencumbered by a script or a specific task, in order to organically identify and document potential bugs in real-time. When participants stick to a specific script, you run the risk of missing a bug or glitch that can only be noticed when a user is interacting with your app organically. Exploratory usability testing can also help you discover gaps in your app functionality or the way certain elements are arranged.

There are definite pros and cons to choosing one of these approaches exclusively, and in many cases, you may benefit from conducting separate usability tests with each.

User Testing Methods

Now that we have a better understanding of the different ways usability testing can be conducted, let's dig in a little bit deeper. In this section, we'll explore some of the most popular usability testing methods, when you should use them, and why.

Moderated, In-person Testing Options

Lab Usability Testing - Lab usability testing is a methodology used to evaluate how easy it is for users to complete a set of tasks with an app while being evaluated. In this usability method, the tasks users try to complete are carefully controlled, and the environment in which they are performed is strictly managed to reduce naturalistic bias. Once the tasks are complete, users are asked to provide feedback on their experience.

The biggest benefit of lab usability testing is the amount of control it provides. Using this testing method, all tests are run under the same standardized conditions, which makes it especially useful for comparison tests. That being said, these tests are often more expensive and usually based on a small population size in a controlled environment, which is not necessarily a reflection of your actual customer base or real-life use cases.

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Guerrilla Testing - With a more guerrilla testing method, test participants are typically chosen at random from a public place, like a mall, airport, or coffee shop and are asked to perform a quick usability test in exchange for something like a gift card or coupon.

Guerrilla testing is especially useful because it allows you to test the usability of your app across a completely random cross-section of people while also building awareness and interest in your app. The process can generate lots of attention for your app because it gives you an opportunity to interact with real users and collect their feedback in a more informal setting. With that being said, it's not an ideal testing method if you're looking for extensive testing or follow-ups because participants are generally reluctant to stick around or provide you with personal information.

Moderated, Remote Testing Options

Phone and Video Interviews - With a phone usability test, participants are instructed to complete tasks over a recorded video call with their interactions and behavior being noted remotely.

This method is a more economical way for someone to test users across a large geographical area. They're also less expensive than in-person interviews and allow someone to collect more data in a shorter period.

Card Sorting - Card sorting mobile app usability testing is an iterative and qualitative research technique that helps determine the most effective and intuitive way to organize an app's navigation structure. In card sorting, a moderator asks users to sort virtual cards that represent different items or categories in the app's navigation into categories that make sense to them.

The principle behind card sorting is that the groups people create by sorting the cards often match up with what the developers originally intended. Card sorting mobile app usability testing also helps uncover missing or unnecessary features and assists with designing a navigation system that is both intuitive and easy to use.

Unmoderated, Remote Testing Options

Session Recordings - Session recording mobile app testing is a method of usability testing in which the sessions of users are recorded using mobile devices with video and audio recording capabilities. This method is beneficial because it can help researchers and product designers observe user interactions with the mobile app and identify usability issues as they occur.

Session recording mobile app testing is conducted using a variety of tools including recording apps like AZ Screen Recorder  and OneShot for Android and QuickTime and AirShou for iOS.

Unmoderated, In-person Testing Options

Observation Testing - Observation mobile app usability testing is the process of observing users as they interact with an app to assess how easy your app is to use and uncover usability issues. Observations can be performed in a lab setting, using mobile devices that are connected to a computer running a screen recorder, or on-site at users' offices.

The benefit of observation mobile app usability testing is that it allows you to uncover issues that you might not anticipate or easily reproduce with other usability testing approaches. It also allows usability testing to be conducted in the context of a real-world environment, which makes it useful for testing both the functionality of the app and its interface.

A woman standing at a white board covered in sticky notes in front of a small group of people.
Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Best Practices for Mobile App Usability Testing

When usability testing a mobile app, consider the following best practices:

1. Ditch the prototype - If you really want to gauge how people are going to be using your app, it's important to ditch any prototype or emulation you may have. Test on actual devices and across multiple device types (i.e. - phone, iPad, etc.) to get a thorough understanding of how it will perform across different form factors.

2. Recruit the right test group - When putting together a group of people to run usability testing on your app with, make diversity a priority. While it's important to Beta test with a group that's representative of your target demographic, more diverse opinions will help you create a better app overall. Additionally, make sure that your test group isn't 100% made up of experienced smartphone users.

3. When it comes to test groups, size matters - Nielsen Norman Group recommends recruiting 5 users for a usability test, which should cover most mobile app owners’ needs. However, if your mobile app has over 30-40 screens, you may benefit from running usability tests on 15 participants in 3 successive batches. That should be enough to uncover 99% of the UX issues in your mobile app.

4. Be mindful of your testing environment - People will be using your app wherever they go, so make sure that you test your app in multiple environments—indoors, outdoors, and in places where reception can be faulty.

5. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point - If you're following a script, keep your testing sessions short and to-the-point (30 minutes or less), and select representative tasks for users to execute. Test the flow of the app across multiple screens, and make sure that you have a clear path for users to follow.

6. Determine what might be missing and plan for the future - Ask your participants to point out where they would expect to see certain features in your app, even if they are not currently available. With this data, you can not only make your interface more intuitive, it can also help you plan for future features down the road.

CONCLUSION

Usability testing is a crucial phase of the app building process, but with this information in your arsenal, a highly functional and easy-to-use application is well within your grasp.

Looking for a little extra support? An experienced app development agency like Crowdbotics with a dedicated team of designers, developers, and engineers can help! Get in touch with us today for a detailed quote and build timeline.