User Test vs Usability Test

October 30, 2014

User test. Focus group. Usability test.

I often see the terms get used interchangeably, but there’s an important difference.

I’m a big proponent of usability testing. Watching people use your product is the best way to improve. But it’s important to understand that the point is to make sure a user can accomplish a task, not to find out if they like the product. I’ve heard it said that usability testing is like watching people walk through a doorway to make sure they don’t trip. It’s not asking people if they like the doorway. (I wish I could remember the source of that analogy.)

People who aren’t tech-savvy often blame themselves when they can’t figure out how to do something. So, when running a usability test, I always tell people, “We’re not testing you. We’re testing the app.” (A line I learned from Steve Krug’s work.) This removes the fear of doing something wrong.

User testing and focus groups, on the other hand, turn a project into design by committee. Putting the product in front of people to see what they like or don’t like is a futile exercise. People are bad at self-reporting if they would use or like a product.

So if you want to improve your product skip the user test and run a usability test instead.