Letting ‘Em Loose During Usability Tests

Most often, when you think of usability tests, you think of a facilitator guiding and observing a test partipant as they complete a set of predefined tasks.  Recently, I’ve been considering a different approach to testing that involves letting participants loose on a web site (still encouraging them to think-out-loud) and observing what is perhaps a truer user experience, since the user is making most of the decisions about where to go and what’s worth doing (e.g., Download, Share).  One reason that a facilitator may still be of use in these situations is that sometimes a user will leave the site to do research elsewhere and spend less time commenting on the site being tested.  While this may be an important learning, it may not be the best use of time, and having a facilitator available to guide the user back to the focus of the study can be important.  I’m curious to know if anyone has experience with this “let ’em loose” approach, and would love to hear suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Letting ‘Em Loose During Usability Tests

  1. Actually I was just talking about this with someone today, before seeing your post. Have you tried it? Or have you heard anything about it since your post?

    1. Hi,

      Yes, since that post I have been experiencing more usability testing where we study “natural user behavior” with the guidance of a facilitator. Where this approach seems most effective is when we “intercept” visitors as they arrive at a site (see Ethnio.com). We can then observe them completing the very tasks they came to the site to do, rather than the more contrived tasks that WE would like them to do. The results have been extremely interesting, and I believe more valuable. I definitely recommend including natural behavior research in at least part of any usability test. You can always add some task-based testing at the end if time permits.

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