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Usability Testing

What It Is

Doing regular usability testing with your website visitors is a best practice in managing your agency’s website. In a typical approach, users — one at a time or two working together — use your website to perform tasks, while one or more people watch, listen, and take notes.

Usability testing allows you to measure of the quality of a user's experience when they interact with your website. It’s one of the best ways to find out what is or isn't working on your site.

Why It’s Important

Research shows that people cannot find the information they seek on Web sites about 60% of the time. This can lead to wasted time, reduced productivity, increased frustration, and loss of repeat visits and money. See the Usability.gov website for more research on why usability testing is important.

Specific Requirements

OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites require agencies to (#1A) “to disseminate information to the public in a timely, equitable, efficient and appropriate manner” and (#2A) “maximize the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information and services provided to the public.”

By conducting usability testing, you’ll have evidence-based data that identifies what needs to be improved on your website. This will allow you to create websites that ensure your users can find what they’re looking for and are satisfied with their experience.

How to Implement

There are many ways to conduct usability testing. Here are the main steps in determining how to do the testing and what kind of testing you should do:

1. Plan scope, issues, participants, location, budget

  • What are you going to test?
  • What concerns do you have about the site that you want to test?
  • Which users should participate in the test?
  • Where will you conduct the test? In a fixed laboratory? In a conference room or other space with a portable lab? In a conference room or other space but without any recording equipment? Remotely?
  • What is your budget for testing?

2. Develop scenarios

  • Select relevant tasks for users to try.
  • Prepare, try out, and refine scenarios for those tasks.
    Note: Make sure the scenarios are clearly written and not too much of a challenge for the allotted test time.

3. Recruit test participants

  • Recruit users who accurately represent your current or potential users.
  • Consider using a firm that specializes in recruiting for usability tests.
  • If you do it yourself, build a database of users for future tests.

    Recruiting usability test participants -- from the Economic Research Service, USDA

4. Conduct usability testing

  • Have a trained facilitator interact with the user.
  • Have trained observers watch, listen, and take notes.
  • Make sure participants know that they are helping by trying out the Web site; the site is being tested, not them.
  • Get participants to think aloud as they work.
  • Let participants express their reactions.
  • Listen! Do not lead. Be sure to stay neutral in your words and body language. Be careful not to ask leading questions that may skew the participants' responses.
  • Take detailed, useful notes concentrating on observations of behavior rather than inferences.

5. Make good use of the test results

  • Compile the data from all participants.
  • List the problems that participants had.
  • Sort the problems by priority and frequency of the problem.
  • Develop solutions. Get expert advice if the solutions are not obvious.
  • Fix the problems.
  • Test the revised version to ensure you made the right design decisions.

Read more details and specific resources about how to conduct usability testing, from Usability.gov.

Usability Tools

Usability Testing Environment Tool

Lessons Learned from Usability Testing of Government Websites


  • Usability.gov is the primary government resource on usability and accessibility, including the latest usability research and training opportunities.
  • Web Manager University offers short seminars and 2-day courses on web usability, design, and other topics for web managers.
  • Usability Resources –Your guide to customer-friendly website and interface design.


Many federal public websites follow this best practice. This practice is part of the guidelines and best practices published by the Interagency Committee on Government Information to aid agencies' implementation of OMB Policies for Public Websites.


Content Lead: Nicole Burton

Page Updated or Reviewed: June 10, 2008

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