5 Tips For Conducting A Mobile Usability Test

Jeff Sauro, PhD

As companies continue to focus on improving the usability of their mobile websites and applications, testing these interfaces can feel a lot like testing websites in 1996–lots of surprises, unfamiliar conventions, workarounds, and frustrations.

While conducting a usability test on a mobile device shares a lot of the same characteristics as a desktop usability study, there are some additional factors to deal with.

Here are five tips to help make the most of your mobile study.

  1. Have chargers ready: The same battery life issue that plagues cell-phone users in general, plagues mobile usability tests as well. About 10% of our users run out of battery during a study! Having an iPhone 4 and 5 charger along with a few Android chargers helps keep the studies running. It also doesn’t hurt to have a backup Apple or Android phone ready as well. We usually have three devices charged and ready in case a participant forgets their phone, has connectivity issues or has problems using an app or prototype.
  2. Record fingers, screens and bodies: For in-person mobile testing there’s a lot going on in 3 dimensions. Unlike desktop studies where a screen-recorder like Camtasia or GoTo meeting will capture most of the salient activities, a mobile screen recorder like Reflector won’t show you users interacting with the device, just the effects of their actions. You miss a lot of the informative fat-fingered misses, gestures, and swipes as users attempt to navigate a smaller mobile interface. While recording the user’s face and body aren’t as essential, being able to see the participant move with their phone along with facial expressions can help capture those moments of delight and frustration.
  3. Encourage users to pick up their phone: Even with the MOD 1000 recorder that allows for full mobility, some users will have a tendency to place the camera on a desk when thinking aloud (or thinking silently). While it’s likely the case that some users prefer a stationary phone to interact with, some of the placement may be an artifact of the testing and you’ll want to minimize that bias during a study.
  4. Consider running an unmoderated mobile study: Just a bit more than a year ago the best and only reliable way to observe a participant use their mobile device was in person. Fortunately, technology has come out from companies like MUIQ and Usertesting.com that allow you to watch users attempt tasks on mobile devices from anywhere in the world. All the benefits of unmoderated desktop testing apply here too: easier recruiting specialized and geographically diverse users, and a speedy collection of much larger sample sizes.
  5. Plan for different platforms: Android is not the same experience as iOS. There are differences in navigation, screen sizes and UI conventions. While we have to deal with different browsers and the idiosyncrasies between PCs and Macs for desktop usability testing, the differences between mobile devices can be even more substantial. Developers aren’t the only ones who have to plan and account for these differences; usability professionals also need to recognize and respond to device and platform variations as they design studies.

    This means you’ll want to be sure prototypes and sites work on multiple device types and double check that things like back buttons and form elements work as expected. This is especially the case with unmoderated testing where you can’t adjust interfaces on-the-fly. Having participants use their own phone means you’re likely to see the issues they encounter, but it also means you’re likely to run into unforeseen problems with your testing setup.

We’ll demonstrate how to perform a mobile usability study at the upcoming Denver UX Bootcamp.

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