Usability testing without a budget
How many times have you been thinking to yourself, or even said out loud to your team, that "We really should do some usability testing on this project", only to be knocked down by the inevitable answer: "We don't have the budget for it"? If you're anything like me, the answer is dozens. Well, it doesn't have to be like that.
Even larger projects can often lack a dedicated budget for usability testing. Maybe the client doesn't think it's necessary, maybe the budget is really tight, or maybe there are other reasons. Whatever. The good news is that you can squeeze in a low budget, quick and basic test anyway, which is much better than not testing at all.
It doesn't really matter how much you know about usability -- after working on a project for a couple of weeks you've become blind to many of the problems. Sure, experience will help you avoid making many design mistakes in the first place, but something will slip through. Every time. That's why doing even a very basic usability test will improve your site. And here's one way of doing it.
Something to test
First of all, you need something to test on. In some cases this will be a clickable prototype, in others it's a more or less finished site (which is not ideal -- the earlier you test, the better).
In either case, you need a few scenarios to test. A scenario in this context is a task that the user can perform on the site. I usually try to test at least three scenarios. If you're testing on a prototype, you need to build dummy HTML pages for every step of the way for those, and if you're testing on the site that's being developed you need to make sure everything needed to complete the tasks has been implemented. Try to make any dummy content as "real" as possible -- many people tend to get hung up on things like spelling mistakes or illogical content, which is not what you're testing.
Possible tasks can be "Find the telephone number to the person in charge of sales", "Place an order for product X", or "Find out when and where such and such lecture is held". If you know which areas of the site are the most critical, make sure to come up with tasks that involve those areas.
Finding people to test with
Once the scenarios are in place, you need some people to test them on. Ideally you would find people that are representative for the site's target demographics. In low budget usability testing, you don't have the time or the money to find those people. So what is quick and cheap enough? Look around you. Ask some people around the office, ask your team to check with their spouses or parents, ask a friend. Anyone who uses the web and isn't too involved in the project will do. Let them know that it will only take half an hour, and that they'll be helping you improve the site you're building.
You don't need a whole lot of people. I usually settle for three or four persons. After testing only one or two you'll probably be getting a feel for where any problematic areas are.
For the actual testing you obviously need a networked computer (or a local copy of the site), preferrably in a reasonably quiet room or area of the office. You need one person to conduct the test -- this will be the person talking to the users. If possible, one more person from the team should be present to help take notes.
Before testing, you should do the test yourself to make sure it really is possible to perform the tasks you'll be testing.
Start by telling the test subject what the test is all about and how it works. Let them know that you're testing the site you're working on, not how good they are at using the web, and if they make a mistake or fail to accomplish any of the tasks you'll be giving them it's because you need to fix the site, not because they are stupid.
Some background info on the subjects is also good to have, especially when it comes to their web usage. A person that uses the web 12 hours a day is likely to be more used to finding workarounds than someone using the web only half an hour daily.
Ask the test subjects to think out loud during the test. It helps you understand why they choose to click on link A instead of on button B. It could also give you ideas for improvement. I find this part very interesting. Some people talk a lot, while others more or less just do what you ask them to (complete the tasks) without saying a whole lot.
Avoid asking leading questions. Try to leave them as open as possible to avoid influencing the test subject's answer or actions.
Also ask the testers if they have any general opinions on the site, the design, the structure, etc, and if they have any suggestions for improving the site. You'll be surprised by how much some people will tell you about what they think is good and bad in web design.
Make sure to take notes of what the test subjects do during the test. Don't rely on remembering everything that surfaces during the test -- you won't. It's very easy to forget small but important details.
Debriefing and drawing conclusions
When testing is done, go through the notes you made and clean them up, typing everything in a text document. This step is for documentation and to keep things fresh in your memory.
Summarise the tests and try to find any common problematic areas. If all test subjects were having similar problems you know where to start improving the site.
Meet with the team and discuss the results. Decide what changes to make, and what to prioritise. There will often be some really low-hanging fruit that will only take minutes to fix and can be done right away. Other changes may require talking to the client.
It doesn't have to be difficult or expensive
If you've been unable to do any usability testing because of time or budget constraints, try the very basic method I've outlined here in your next project. It isn't comparable to full scale testing with carefully selected participants, video cameras and all that, but it doesn't require much of anything, is very cheap, and will alert you to any major problems in your design and/or information architecture without breaking the budget. Obviously you can do much better and more detailed testing than this, but as stated before: if you have no budget, minimal testing is much, much better than no testing at all.