Hey researchers! Stop shirking usability testing.

Observing behaviour is how you build the instinct to understand it.

I’m a hypocrite

I should start by admitting that I had the discussion only this week about getting another person to run usability tests in order to free my time up for discovery research. It isn’t the first time I’ve had such a discussion.

Why does it happen?

Easy to learn/teach

At a basic level, usability testing is quite easy to learn how to do. In my experience though, without some involvement from an experienced practitioner, the standard of this testing will drop quite drastically.


Usability testing is also seen as ‘less strategic’ because the company has some plans over and above the value it currently delivers to its users. This view assumes they’ve pretty much nailed the existing experience and aren’t really threatened by the competition (big mistake).

Not good at it

Some researchers dodge usability testing simply because they aren’t very good at it. Rather than keep doing it in order to get better, it can be easier to ditch it and get product teams to do it for themselves instead.

The value of observing behaviour

Observed behaviour is at the core of user research. The most reliable way of understanding behaviour is to see it for yourself. Many other user research techniques are a substitute for not having been able to observe. It is often unavoidable or even advisable to use a non-observed method, such as a diary study. But there are also limitations with relying on reported behaviour.

Your opportunities to observe

At a simplified level you have two opportunities which allow you to observe user behaviour — contextual observation (going to the user’s environment and observing them there) and usability testing.

How this has benefited me

If I hadn’t observed so much user behaviour I wouldn’t be anywhere near as good at what I do.

  • I get a greater understanding of what participants say in user interviews because I have seen what they are often talking about, first hand. I also ask better questions and have a greater appreciation for the consequences of findings.
  • I can understand more easily what is and isn’t important about some usage analytics.
  • I can spot issues with copy, that the writer might not see.
  • I can help designers to refine their designs before testing them
  • I can help product managers to refine their experiments before releasing them.
  • I often ask questions and make observations about things that others tend to have thought about.

Are you getting your hours in?

Observing user behaviour is like flying a plane. The benefits come from getting your hours in and keeping them topped up.

Prototype hours?

Prototype testing is very useful, but is often not the same as watching someone using live software. If you’re only ever watching people using prototypes then you get a more constrained and artificial view of how people behave.

Watch recordings

You may have had to suggest the product team carry out their own testing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch the recordings or observe some sessions live.

Natural tasks

Some usability testing studies are, by design, more natural and realistic than others. When watching sessions to keep your ‘hours topped up’ then opt for the more natural sessions where participants are in the mindset of real users and are completing an entire task.

  1. The team has recruited participants who have a current need for a lawyer in order to see what improvements could be made to the site
  2. The team has developed a filter to refine lawyers by specialism. They have recruited participants who have used a lawyer in the past and want to see if the filter works the way they would expect.

Realistic not real

Despite everything I just said, you should also still bear in mind that observed behaviour in a research session isn’t identical to real behaviour. Instead it’s just a piece in the puzzle of finding out what’s really going on.

About the author

I’m David Hamill. I help organisations take better decisions through lean but meaningful UX research. If you liked this post, you can read some more below.


User research

Product management



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