How to prep for a simple usability study.

Crafting tasks and scenarios for a usability study is a balancing act between feast and famine. In order to get realistic insights, you need to provide enough information so users aren’t guessing what they need to do, while not providing too much information and biasing their chance of succeeding.

Whether your next research study is a moderated or unmoderated usability test, it’s important to clearly define what each task is and what it isn’t. Often, your goal is to gather quantitative data about user behavior and interactions on your site, which is difficult and messy if there isn’t agreement upfront about the scenario and task.

This is why a little forethought and a simple template is a great way for researchers and teams to get on the same page.

Sometimes stakeholders need a little guidance

As a UX researcher, you’re going to run a lot of usability tests in your career. Sometimes you’ll be a domain expert and know exactly what is required of participants. Other times you won’t be a domain expert with the particular product you are testing, and may not be qualified to write the tasks. In either case, having a template for writing usability tasks is going to be a huge help.

Assuming you’ve already defined your research goals, the next step is to work with the stakeholders to develop or confirm the tasks. To aid the process, I’ve developed a template that helps guide you through this task writing process, and gives a framework to outline the scenarios and tasks to get you further, faster.

It’s also a useful tool for your stakeholders to use to communicate and get buy-in from the product team.

Template for Usability Tasks

The template below is what I use to outline tasks and scenarios, and what I provide to customers or stakeholders if I’m not going to be writing the tasks personally. I don’t expect them to get it exactly right, but it has all the elements necessary to provide them with a better understanding of the task goal, assumptions, steps, and success criteria so that we can get a game plan developed together.

Make one copy of this table for each task you create:

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Example:

Task 1 – Create a meeting in Outlook

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Instructions for Use

Task # and name: Give each task a brief descriptive name and a number. The name helps you remember what its purpose is, and the numbers are useful in usability testing because you can ask the observers things such as, “Shall we skip 3 this time and go right to 4?” without discussing the content of the tasks in front of the users.

Goal/outputs: What will users have accomplished when they’re done with the task? Is there a tangible output? How will they know the task is complete? What might the users do to be sure?

Inputs: List all the information or resources (tangible and intangible) that a user would need to complete this task. Examples include: a valid login, business policies, physical objects such as a textbook, or a credit card, file names, and so on. Real users may have some of this information in their heads—in your usability task, you might have to provide this information. For example, a network administrator probably knows the network configuration by heart, but for your task, you’d need to create a network schematic with relevant details, such as server names and IP addresses.

Assumptions: Assumptions are the conditions and prerequisites that are in place at the start of the task. The assumptions depend on what you want to learn from the task. For example, if a task explores how users recover from an error caused by a duplicate record, your assumptions include the condition(s) that cause the error to occur, such as, “An employee with the same name already exists in the database.”

Steps: Write down the steps you expect the user will go through in completing the task. This helps you identify the prototype pieces that you’ll need to create. Writing down the expected steps can also be helpful if there will be observers who aren’t as familiar with the interface as you are. Keep the steps mostly at a screen level—no need to list every field on the order form, just say, “Order form.” Some tasks have multiple paths that lead to success, so jot down any variations, such as “Search OR navigates to lawn & garden page.” Put optional steps in parentheses, such as (Review privacy policy).

Success criteria: Specific measurable criteria for determining that the task was successfully completed.

Notes: The notes section might have several types of information, including the reasons why you created the task, how you’ll conduct it, specific things to watch for, and questions to ask users after the task is complete. Information to include in the notes varies depending on what’s being tested. Write down whatever information you think will be useful to have on hand during the usability tests, and give copies of the completed task templates to usability test observers.

Conclusion

Whether you’re working with stakeholders to develop tasks or working on them yourself, this handy template is a great way to organize your thoughts and make sure you’re prepping for a successful study. Feel free to share this with friends and colleagues.