Most companies have precious few opportunities to actually watch customers use their products to learn where the user experience meets expectations and where it falls short. Choosing the right partner for usability testing can help you make the most of these chances to see your design in action and put a stop to the endless internal debate about “what our users want”.

Given that usability testing is now appearing on the services lists of most web design firms, market research companies and boutique agencies, it can be difficult to identify the experts. Here are five questions to help you distinguish the best usability providers from the rest:


1. How do you approach usability testing?

Starting the conversation with this open-ended question will help you confirm that you’re talking to a bona fide usability professional.  Listen for a thoughtful discussion of how various usability methods can be used to address different types of research questions: one-on-one, task-based testing is best for identifying and diagnosing issues, while online, unmoderated testing can be used to benchmark an existing design against a work-in-progress. Be wary of firms that offer only one approach regardless of your objectives, or who focus on gathering participants’ opinions rather than observing their behavior.



2. What percentage of your firm’s work is UX research?

Many web design firms or market research firms list UX research and/or usability testing among their services, but they don’t do research frequently enough for it to be a core competency.  Look for firms that focus on user experience; these firms are likely to spend 50-75% of their time working on research and testing projects.


3. What are the background and skills of the research team?

You’ll benefit from working with UX professionals from human-computer interaction and/or behavioral science backgrounds who also have design experience.  The best user experience professionals combine a rigorous understanding of experimental methods with the ability to translate findings directly into design changes.


4. What do you see as the big issues with our interface?

Ask for a quick review of your application to see how the firm might approach your project.  A thoughtful UX professional will ask you to describe your business objectives and target audience, and may suggest hypotheses about the design to explore in testing (e.g., “Can prospects determine which of your services is best for their needs?”, “Are users willing and able to create an account before checking out?”)  Be wary of firms that suggest design changes off-the-cuff, without considering your goals or how users might interact with the site.


5. Can I get a sample research report?

The most effective usability reports consist of concise, scannable findings and concrete, actionable recommendations.  Look for illustrated documents that use screenshots and bullet points to summarize and diagnose usability issues.  Findings should go beyond simply describing what happened in the study – they should explain why it happened and what impact it had on the user’s experience.  For example:


Clear findings lead to clear recommendations. Look for statements that offer specific actions that can be taken to resolve usability problems:



How prospective vendors answer these questions will provide insight into their beliefs and practices about usability research that may be otherwise difficult to ascertain, and can help you assess if they’ll be a good fit for your project. We hope that you find these guidelines useful for selecting a partner for your UX research services, and of course (shameless plug) we hope you’ll consider talking with us here at Centralis too!