User testing v. usability testing: the recurring mix-up

by Lindsay Burke

About 8 weeks ago I left my comfortable, full-time Visual Design role to attend Fresh Tilled Soil’s 15 week Apprenticeship in User Experience (AUX) program. Although I had been studying UX in my free time for the past two years, I felt a big void in my design education and knew that I needed some real, hands on experience.

This week marks the halfway point in the program, and I am delighted to report that each week I am learning and gaining the experience I craved – by doing. I am applying the concepts and processes introduced by the experts at Fresh Tilled Soil to assigned projects and challenges.

At this point in my AUX Major Design Challenge I am knee-deep in Usability Testing. What I didn’t realize until this week is that “user testing” and “usability testing” are completely different things. Not only do they have different goals, but these two processes happen at totally separate times in the design process. Let me explain more…

I am going to differentiate user testing and usability testing by referencing my own project. I am currently designing a digital school menu platform for families that allows parents to browse school menus, filter individual student dietary restrictions, and place orders accordingly.

User Testing (aka idea validation)

I completed user testing the very first week of AUX by talking to parents, students and teachers to identify a main problem that many of them face. During this phase, I asked questions like, “Tell me how you and your kids decide to order school lunch?” “Where do you access the school lunch menu? Can you show me?” “What are your biggest concerns when it comes to ordering?” I discovered that school systems make it challenging for parents to rely on school meal programs. Menus are not easily accessible nor informative, leaving many parents and students in the dark when it comes to nutritional, caloric, ingredient, and allergy information. By conducting this initial research, I was able to validate a distinct market for a digital school lunch menu platform. During the user testing phase, my main goal was proving that people actually needed my app.

Usability Testing

In contrast to user testing (do people need my app?), usability testing reveals if users are able to physically use the product as intended. I completed usability testing by observing three different people interact with a prototype of my app (which in this case was a clickable wireframe). I asked each user to complete a series of tasks, such as, “order pizza on Monday” or, “navigate to the user dashboard” and I observed their behaviors. Usability testing revealed that some of the written language used within my product was slightly confusing. For example, I asked users to “show me where you can view what your student ordered last week”, and it took two users at least 5 seconds of searching the dashboard to uncover the small icon labeled “past orders.” Users informed me that changing the label to “order history” would be beneficial to them. Moving forward, I will make that iteration and test again!

Now that I am aware of the major differences between the two testing processes, I will most likely refer to user testing as idea validation. It’s not only clearer to me as a designer, but I think it is also a lot more comprehensible to people outside the UX world – especially my future clients!

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design