Getting real users in a room and recording their activity while they use your app sounds really complicated, time-consuming, expensive, and a little nerve-wracking, right?

It is.

Traditional usability testing

Here’s an example of a website under usability testing:

The researcher will give small prompts or ask questions to move the user along. On a shopping app or site, for example, the researcher may ask them, “How would you find a pair of pants?” Then the researcher could watch whether they use the search the bar or navigate from the menu to find clothes by category.

Keeping the language neutral and asking “how” questions is important to not directing the user too much. Sometimes, the researcher may simply hand them a mobile phone loaded with an app and say, “What do you make of this?” and let the user take it from there.

The usability report delivered by the researcher is seen as a huge learning experience for developers. This method can reduce the risk of building the wrong products for the wrong people, help uncover current quality enhancement opportunities, and impact future decision making.

While UX metrics can impact day-to-day decisions for both devs and QAs, measurements can’t replace the raw, qualitative inputs of real users. There’s a pretty big difference between knowing how many seconds a user was logged on and what they were thinking during that time.

But there’s a simpler way to conduct usability testing, no lab required.

Why the “guerrilla method” is a valid option

Doesn’t matter whether you’re baking brownies, building an app, or writing a book, everyone has a different opinion on whether or not it makes sense to request input from your friends.

Will your neighbor, your best buddy, and your mom really be able to give you the feedback you need? Perhaps not.

But the guerrilla method isn’t necessarily strategic or unstructured. It doesn’t have to be so personal. QA analysts for medical office software need not ask their yoga teachers to explore the product.

By getting the answers to four basic questions, a usability testing plan can be developed:

  • What
  • Where
  • Who
  • How

Where – With guerrilla testing, you have to pounce on people in the right location. A Starbucks cafe, a college campus, an e-commerce conference? What makes sense? The point is finding the right people and also working with them in the right environment. B2B products should be explored in an office setting to elicit life-like use. Desktop or web apps (as opposed to mobile) will require comfortable seating for participants.

Who – Choosing the “where” goes hand in hand with choosing the “who.” Simply picking the location might knock out the “who” question altogether, as anyone in that location who doesn’t appear to be in a rush is worth approaching. The who question might be one of the demographics, or if the product is for the mass market, it could be anyone in a public space.

How – Most importantly, you have to keep the testing open-ended. Don’t tell them to complete such-and-such task. Ask them what they think about something, how they would accomplish something, or what they would even do with your app in general. It’s also important to record the session.

Guerilla usability testing

What about when many of your users are out of reach? You may have users spread around the globe, using different devices and speaking different languages. Buy a plane ticket. Just kidding!

Testers may not be users, but they can “put on their user hats” as Testlio Head of QA Kristi Kaljurand likes to say.

Tips for succeeding at informal usability testing

Usability testing is very different from any other QA project. It will seem exciting to the extroverts and daunting to the introverts. To make sure that a day or two spent on usability testing truly benefits the organization, consider the following:

  • Customize a release form template and have participants sign it, so they agree to how the recordings will be internally or externally shared and used.
  • Use a screen recorder like UX recorder or a similar tool. Use a voice recorder for verbal feedback.
  • Elicit as much verbal feedback as possible by asking users to talk you through what they are doing.
  • Be polite: don’t waste too much of anyone’s time or word questions in a way that they feel as if they are being tested, rather than the product.
  • Create a finalized report by consolidating and categorizing similar points of feedback, identifying unexpected workflows, and including particularly valuable quotes.

A quick, relatively informal guerrilla usability testing project can produce invaluable information for an organization: the knowledge of how users really respond. The organization can find out: What are we getting wrong? What are we getting right?

Combined with UX metrics and functional testing, companies can feel confident that they not only provide excellent user experiences but that they are armed to make the right product decisions in the future.

Insight into real-user behavior should never feel out of reach.

Dayana is a QA engineer turned technology writer living in Milan, Italy. She's always down for a smoothie.