5 Ways to Get Usability Testing on the Cheap

By Josh Catone
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Usability testing is a good idea for any new web site. Increasing the usability of your web site is a good idea because it will increase visitor satisfaction, which in turn increases sales and user loyalty. On the business savings side, usability testing can also save you money in development, maintenance, and support costs. Unfortunately, traditional usability tests is pricey — it can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars to run a usability test.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to. Here are five ideas to get usability testing done on the cheap. The results might not be quite as good, but they won’t hurt your pocketbook nearly as much.

As always, if you have any other ideas or have experience with any of the ones we’ve listed, please let us know in the comments.

1. UserTesting.com

UserTesting.com is a low cost way to get a look at what goes through the minds of average web users as they interact with your web page. For $19 $29 per user, you get a 10 20 minute video of a user talking their way through your page, as well as answers to a short, written questionnaire. There is a sample video available here.

We reviewed UserTesting.com in an August issue of the SitePoint Tribune.

2. Feedback Army and Mechanical Turk

Feedback Army is a new low-cost usability testing service that for $7 will provide answers from up to 10 people to a text-based survey about your web site. It isn’t quite as visual as UserTesting.com, and the quality of feedback might be suspect, but nonetheless could provide valuable information about how people view your web site. And it’s cheap enough that if the results are a waste of time, $7 shouldn’t put you out of business.

A similar result could likely be had via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.

3. Silverback and Morae

Another option is to go the DIY route. Recruit some people at a local tech meetup (or a meetup dedicated to the topic your web site covers), or down at the local coffee shop to play with your site on video and give feedback. Silverback for Mac and Morae for Windows are two programs designed specifically for this type of guerilla user testing. They both simultaneously record what users are doing on screen, how they look while they’re interacting with your site (i.e., facial reaction), and what they’re saying while they do it. Morae also records and tracks things like screen clicks, when windows are resized, moved, or closed, and can prompt users to answer survey questions.

A screencast creation program like Screenflow could potentially be used for this type of testing, as well.

4. Forums and Friends

Relying on your family and friends is a good way to get initial feedback on your new web site or site redesign. But for slightly more impartial feedback, it’s not a bad idea to turn to forums for critiques. New startups often post to Hacker News for advice and SitePoint’s Forums have for a long time had an active web site review area.

5. Live Feedback

Finally, you can (and should!) always gather live feedback about how your visitors are actually interacting with your site. CrazyEgg and Click Density offer services that allow you to view visually via heatmap how users are actually using your site. Valuable usability information can be gleaned from these heatmaps, and they also allow you to do A/B testing to compare two design possibilities put into actual use.

For a more theoretical approach, try Feng-GUI or the ViewFinder addon for Firefox. Both offer artificial intelligence generated heatmaps for your web site that attempt to simulate where users will look when they first land on your page. Are they accurate? Hard to say, but certainly don’t rely solely on what they tell you.

It’s a good idea to combine two or more of the above methods to make sure you get a complete picture of how you can improve your site’s usability. Also, remember that SitePoint offers a usability kit to teach you more about the ABCs of usability.

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  • Good links. I think a lot of people, once they’ve gotten their site usable in their minds, figure that it must be usable for everyone. Post-launch testing seems to always get the short shift.

  • This is a great list but I would take feedback from friends and family with a grain of salt. You’ll usually get positive feedback like “oh, it’s so nice.” Or “that’s so professional.” Or on the flip side, I’ll hear things like “It’s too blue” or “It’s too ‘insert emotional insignificance here'” The feedback usually isn’t “bottom line” oriented. My friends and family have never read my business plan, or my marketing plan. They don’t really know my customers either. So, I seldom turn to them for advice. You ever heard of an engineer turning to his “non-engineer mom” for advice on a set of blue prints for a bridge? Similar situation here…

    Also, forums can tend to give excellent feedback from a development point of view – does the site work, does it not work – but again, I find the reviews in this setting are not generally consistent with that of most site’s intended user base.

    Having these groups check whether or not your links work properly, or your search form yields appropriate results is a big help.

  • Raffi

    Hi Josh,
    I wrote Feedback Army and want to say thank you for the mention. While you can bypass Feedback Army and post to Mechanical Turk directly, Feedback Army has several advantages:

    1) Your results are available via an RSS feed. No need to login and navigate several links to get your results.

    2) I find Mechanical Turk’s interface intimidating. You can do a lot with the service and it shows. Contrast this with Feedback Army: Provide a web address, write some questions, pay, and start getting results. The whole process takes less than two minutes for someone who knows what they want to ask.

    3) Feedback Army manages the entire process of posting the task, collecting the results, and paying the workers on time. Feedback Army only accepts reviews from workers with proven track records. The interface the Turkers use has seen tweaks based on their feedback. This results in saved time and better reviews.

    My goal is to save time and make the Mechanical Turk community accessible to developers.

  • Jeremy Skelly

    Silverback is awesome. I love that program. Its simple, but effective…and only $50 bucks!

  • I have taken into account the idea of usability testing, but mostly by asking people their thoughts on the design of the site and what not.

    I’ll be taking a few of the usability testing services into account the next time I plan on doing some usability testing, so thanks for those links!

  • dave

    wow! thats amazing, my business is fully focused on web analytics, and these cools will go down very well with my clients,

    thank you


  • Gubbi

    Clicktale allows about 100 videos of user interaction with the website for free every month. And it provided other analytic data too.

  • userbeta

    I agree, post launch testing is often overlooked. You could have $30,000 spent on an e-commerce site with no usability testing to show for it. My company outsources for crowd testers based on your site´s demographic and we automate the process as much as possible using both benchmark tests and one time tests. Plus we even include footage of your site being used.


  • garann

    five second test seems slightly more structured than review forums, with the same $0 price tag and impartiality.

  • DJ Burdick

    Good article, I hadn’t seen usertesting.com before and will most likely give it a try in the near future.
    Some more thoughts on the subject here:

  • Rob

    You can also get a heuristic analysis for $25 at BWI.

  • Doug Breaker – Founder, EasyUsability.com

    We also offer an easy way to usability test with EasyUsability.com. We go through Mechanical Turk to get our testers, but offer a more structure than Feedback Army. We’ll offer video recording shortly, much like UserTesting (which I have used and like very much). Everyone gets a free test, testers are $15 per tester after that.