Hallway Usability Testing: How to Improve its Effectiveness

Hallway usability testing can be the best introduction to testing with users. However, with little effort, you can dramatically improve upon it.

This post is sponsored by Smidge — an application that offers instant feedback from your users.

Almost everybody who embraces testing a website or app with users, started with hallway usability testing. However, although it is a great start, it has significant weaknesses that can be easily improved upon.

This post will explore what hallway usability testing is, how it can help, and, most importantly, how it can be improved upon.

We begin by defining what hallway usability testing is and why it is so popular.

What Is Hallway Usability Testing?

As the name implies, hallway usability testing involves grabbing passers-by and asking them to look at an interface you wish to test.

They are typically quick tests, often done with colleagues in the office or other people who are easily accessible. The tests are often impromptu, where the person seeking to test an interface is looking to gather general feedback, although sometimes the questions can be more specific.

Why Hallway Usability Testing Is a Great Start

There are two aspects of hallway usability testing that makes it so appealing to those starting testing with users for the first time.

First, it has a low barrier to entry. You don’t need any special equipment and can test with people passing by. That means there is no delay, and you can test as soon as you spot a potential issue.

The second advantage hallway usability testing has is that it is a great way of introducing colleagues and stakeholders to usability testing at zero cost.

Stakeholders can often be reluctant to do testing because they see it as time-consuming and expensive. However, as hallway usability testing is neither, you can show them the benefits of testing with people, while avoiding their concerns.

Good though hallway usability testing is, it does have its downsides.

The Problems With Hallway Usability Testing

Hallway usability testing trades accuracy for ease. In other words, although hallway testing is easy, it is not always a good representation of what will happen when people use the interface in the real world.

That is why hallway testing is generally seen as a starting point towards more thorough usability testing. However, there is a huge divide between hallway testing and full-blown usability testing and research. Fortunately, you don’t need to move from one to another in a single leap.

How to Improve Hallway Usability Testing

You can take many small steps to improve your hallway testing without committing to a more extensive usability testing plan.

Make it More Regular

The first improvement you can make is to do hallway usability testing a little more regularly.

The more often you test, the more problems you will uncover, because after you fix the first set of problems you encounter you will uncover new issues that users didn’t get as far as discovering the first time around. There is also a danger that in fixing one problem, you introduce a second one.

Illustration showing the benefits of multiple rounds of hallway usability testing.
The more rounds of testing you run, the more problems you will uncover.

In his book Rocket Surgery Made Easy, Usability expert Steve Krug recommends testing at least once a month with three users. That is an achievable aim, as it will only take a maximum of a morning each month.

Ask Better Questions

The next change you can make is to improve the questions you ask when testing. When we start with hallway usability testing our questions can often be too vague.

For example, simply asking people if they “like” the design is not usability testing as people express an opinion, not testing whether the site is usable.

Focus your questions on asking users to complete a task. For example, ask them to find a certain piece of information.

Don’t worry if you only have a design mockup rather than a clickable prototype. You can still ask where they would click to complete a certain task.

A usability study titled “First Click Usability Testing” by Bob Bailey and Cari Wolfson discovered that if the first click was correct, users had an 87% chance of completing the action correctly, as opposed to just 46% if the first click was wrong.

Be careful though not to lead the user with your questions. Avoid mentioning specific interface elements or labels as users will use that as a clue to identify where they are expected to click.

Be Slightly More Picky About Your Testers

Another easy way to improve your hallway usability testing with minimal effort is to be slightly more selective over who you test with.

Although testing with your colleagues in the hallway is better than nothing, it can lead to some misleading results about how your actual audience will interact with your user interface.

That is because your colleagues are too knowledgable about the company, your products and related subject matter. The more knowledgable we become about something, the more how we think about it diverges from the norm.

A good next step is to use anybody outside of the company. That includes asking friends and family to test an interface for you. Although still not ideal, it is a good step in the right direction.

To go even further you may want to take your usability testing online.

Move Hallway Usability Testing Online

Once you decide to start testing remotely, it opens up a world of possibilities. You can test using an application like Zoom and even get help recruiting with a service like Testing Time.

The advantage of remote testing is that you can easily access people similar to your target audience. However, you can go even further and test with those who are using your products and services.

Using a service called Smidge, you can display a notification message on your website asking users if they are willing to take part in usability testing. If they agree they will be immediately connected to you via a video link and you can run a test with them then and there.

Smidge website
Smidge allows you to instantly speak to people using your website.

An approach like this has all of the simplicity of hallway usability testing but without the drawbacks that come from testing with colleagues.

Take the Next Step

You will read a lot of intimidating articles online about usability testing. Articles that go into great depth about how to carry out testing with users ‘properly’. Although these articles often give excellent advice, they can make testing with users feel intimidating and unachievable.

If budgets and time are tight, it is perfectly acceptable to start with hallway usability testing. Something is better than nothing, as long as you are aware of its limitations.

The secret is not to stop there. We should always be pushing ourselves to take the next step, whether going from hallway testing to using a service like Smidge or remote testing to full-blown field studies.

Always ask yourself how you can take your testing to the next level and never stop learning.

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