How to write a usability script

Posted by Dr Sarah Burton Taylor on May 8, 2019 10:58:00 AM

To start with let’s talk about terminology – we prefer to talk about a usability guide not a script. Script suggests a rigid inflexible structure – a list of things that you are going to fire at the tester.

Guide, on the other hand, conveys more clearly what is required – a guide to all the things we need to cover but in a format that enables a conversation with the tester in a more relaxed, flexible and less intimidating style.

Why do I need a usability guide?

Obviously, the primary use is to guide the facilitator in what needs to be explored in the testing.

But it has an important secondary use… it enables the client – whether that be internal or external – to see what will be included in the test, have the opportunity to comment on this, and consequently be more engaged with the research and buy into the research outcomes.

Getting started writing a usability guide

Before starting to write the guide it’s important to be absolutely clear on the scope and the objectives of the test: What’s the background and context? What are we trying to achieve? What do we want to learn? What will we be able to implement? What are the profiles of the types of people we want to recruit?

Once you can answer these questions you will want to think about the structure of your guide. There are three key elements to consider:

  • The introduction
  • The main research
  • The session conclusions

The introduction

The introduction covers both the introduction to the session and introduction to the tester. It also provides an opportunity for the tester to get settled in and for you to put the tester at ease.

The session introduction needs to cover the following things:

  • Broadly what will be covered in the test session
  • A reminder that the session will be recorded and possibly observed
  • Encouragement  for the user to think out loud whilst looking at site – Jacob Nielsen says this “should be the first tool in your UX toolbox” 
  • Reassurance that it is the site you are testing - not the tester - and they cannot offend anyone by what they say
The tester introduction should be used as an opportunity to start a dialogue, a conversation, with the tester and to help put them at ease: a conversation about what they do, their background, and their interests related to the site under test.

This is important as it will help the facilitator frame tasks in a way that make them more realistic and engaging for the tester.

The main research

This is the meat of the guide. This section is where you will delve into the site content and navigation with the tester.

When dealing with live sites we recommend you allow the testers to lead the exploration. Having established at the introductory stage what types of things the tester may be interested in, you can ask them to pursue tasks that are directly relevant to them.

Once these tasks have been exhausted, you can move them on to your pre-agreed tasks to explore the site further. But don’t forget to frame these additional tasks in a way to make them feel relevant to the tester.

With prototypes usability testing we tend to be more constrained by the types of user journeys we are able to accomplish, but again the knack of the facilitator is to make these feel relevant to the tester so they engage in the process.

Obviously, the precise tasks are going to depend on the site itself and the objectives but the key things to remember when drafting the guide are:

  • Tasks should be phrased in a neutral, non-directive way that does not indicate ease or difficulty of the task.
  • Use common language (no acronyms or jargon) and do not directly copy words from the navigation or content on the site - this gives testers clues about where you want them to go
  • Probes and questions should be written in a way that means they are open not closed – we don't want testers to give yes or no answers

The session conclusions

During the session, specific issues with the interface and the content will have emerged. The conclusion provides an opportunity to get the tester to reflect on the overall experience – how useful and usable they have found it to be.

Use this time to also ask the tester to reflect on their perceptions of the site, the brand values and to establish whether or not the tester would reuse or recommend your site.

Finally, bring the session to a close by thanking the tester – whatever you think of the feedback, be gracious and say thank you to them for their time and thoughts!

A final thought…

Remember you are creating a guide, not a usability script. A good facilitator will have the skills to ask the appropriate follow-up questions as they go along. They will also be able to opportunistically pursue tasks as testers navigate the site so don’t feel you have to follow the guide strictly to order.

Facilitating usability testing requires practice to do it well. Read our top facilitator tips to help get started.

Related content: what is the purpose of usability testing, the biggest challenges of usability testing

Topics: Usability Testing

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