The Bootstrappers Guide to Free Usability Testing

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You just finished designing your latest web project. You did your research, designed it with your client’s audience in mind, and now it’s ready to be launched. Or is it? Many designers fail to follow through with one of the most important elements of successful web design — user testing.

It sounds daunting… and expensive. Most advice you’ll get around the web assumes that you (or rather your client) has seemingly bottomless pockets to conduct such research. They will suggest tests, interviews, focus groups, all of which cost plenty of money.

But what if you and your client are bootstrapping it, and don’t have the resources necessary for such rigorous testing practices? This happens all the time, with such an abundance of startups looking for websites. So what do you do to ensure that your finished project not only looks great, but is easy to use, and actually generates conversions?

This is the real world, and we all know that sometimes a quick and dirty solution is better than no solution at all. So let’s look at a few actionable ways you can do your due diligence without a budget to work with.

Focus Group your Friends

One of the most valuable methods of testing a product amongst actual users is a good old fashioned focus group. We’ve all seen how it works. The product (or in this case, website) is shown to a diverse group of people. They interact with it, and share their thoughts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come cheap. You have to pay the moderator, as well as the participants.

Just like when it’s time to move and you can’t afford a moving company, you better call your friends.

Focus Groups

Or more specifically in this case, friends who most closely match the target user of the project. Ideally, you would have designed the site with a user persona or two in mind. This ensures that you make the right decisions during the design process. This, in turn, will keep the website as usable and enticing to the target demographic as possible.

Even if you didn’t start there, think about it now. Who is the site for? Rarely is it for everybody, so gather a group that most closely resembles who will actually be using it.

“If your friends fit the persona, great. If not, consider using neighbours, your parents, or even their friends for usability testing.”
— Wes McDowell

Have a small get-together where you can observe five or six different people interacting with your site on various devices. Ask them to complete various tasks that are important to the success of the project. Take note of where they have difficulties.

Can they find the contact info? How easy is it for them to fill out the form? Do they understand the interface? Do they like the look? Most importantly, do they know what they’re supposed to do once on the site?

Ask them to think aloud, giving you insights into what’s driving their decisions.

Keep this in mind: If they seem to have trouble, they may talk it out with you since you’re in the room with them. But if they were a real user on their own, they would probably abandon the site right then and there. Just because they eventually figure it out shouldn’t translate to a success.

If you have a functional mockup, simply watch as they interact with it, and ask them questions as they do. If you are earlier in the process, and only have PSD mockups, ask them to verbally tell you what they would click. Ask them what they would expect to see if they did.

Lastly, ask them for their overall impression of the usability and look-and-feel of the project. Does it inspire them to buy into what the site is offering? Are they 100% crystal clear as to what that is?

It’s important that you tell everybody involved not to sugarcoat their answers. We all have “nice” friends, and “honest” ones, so make sure you invite at least a few you can count on to level with you, even if they hate it. And maybe provide them with a few drinks first.

Take it to the Streets With Guerilla Usability Testing

If you’ve exhausted your supply of friends and family, or if they just don’t fit the demographics, you can always expand your reach with the general public. Of course this technique isn’t for the shy, but you shouldn’t be nervous about trying it.

Guerilla Testing

Coffee shops are a perfect place to set up temporarily, and stake out patrons who you think would make good test subjects. When you find one, here are a few tips to make sure things go smoothly and don’t get too awkward:

  • Approach in a friendly manner, and let them know right away what you’re doing, and that they are free to say no. Let them know you will only take up a few minutes of their time.
  • Be ready for rejection. Not everybody will be willing to help out, and some won’t even be willing to take out their earbuds long enough to listen to your pitch. Don’t take it personally.
  • Let them know that their responses will shape the direction of the project. This can be intriguing to people, and they may be more likely to agree if they think their opinion matters.
  • I know the title of this article says “free”, but it really helps if you can offer a gift card to the coffee shop as a part of your pitch. It doesn’t have to be much, even a $5 card will make people more willing to help.
  • If they say yes, be as efficient as possible. Have your laptop ready to go, and have your agenda and questions ready as well.
  • If you seem to be going longer than expected, let them know they can be excused at any time, and ask if they mind continuing. You’ll find that most people actually enjoy the process, so time won’t always be a huge issue once you’ve started.

You will follow the same general workflow as when you test your friends, the only difference here is that these are strangers. So be courteous and appreciative of their time.

Turn to the Web

Sometimes you may have trouble finding real-world people that fit your target market, but there are many fantastic online sources available to you as a secondary option. The internet is a great way for designers to feel connected to the outside world, and get constructive feedback.

While trolls certainly exist within the comments section on most websites, I have had nothing but good experiences receiving helpful advice from online communities with this type of feedback.

Keep in mind, you aren’t looking for feedback from fellow designers, but rather from people who fit the persona for the project.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Facebook (either your friends/relatives, or groups you belong to)
  • LinkedIn connections or groups
  • Public Slack teams

Just remember, when asking online communities for feedback, you should provide some value to others in return. You can answer their questions, and comment on some of their posts.

A Few Free Tools

While most of the tools you can use to test your web design projects come with a hefty price tag, there are still a few you can use for free. I should mention that these tools are more for ongoing usability testing, and cannot replace watching users interact with your site for first impressions before launching. But if your client is interested in partnering on a longer-term basis in order to streamline their online presence, these tools are a great way to do that.

Google Analytics

Every site should be using Analytics by default these days, because it can tell you so much about how to hone and improve its usability. It will allow you to set up conversion goals and measure them. It shows where you are losing people, and after how long, providing you with valuable insights you can use to tweak content and layout.


There is a paid version, and a free version from the folks at Optimizely. Obviously the paid version is more inclusive, but the free tool is certainly a great place to start. It can connect to your clients Google Analytics, and help provide more context for the data it collects, helping you see the circumstances under which visitors bounce, or convert more clearly.

Five Second Test

From the folks at UsabilityHub, Fivesecondtest is a great way to test your web project for first impressions. The three-step process couldn’t be more simple:

  1. Upload a screenshot of the page with a simple question about either the design or functionality.
  2. Real human testers have five seconds to look at the screenshot, then they have to answer the question.
  3. The responses are gathered, then shown to you for review.

You can gather all kinds of valuable insights into your page this way. Your results will tell you if people understood your messaging at first glance (which they should,) as well as what they liked most and least about the design.

While this is normally a paid tool, you can earn free responses by being a tester for other designers.


Mouseflow is another paid tool with a free version that you can use. In addition to analytics and data, you can see detailed heatmaps as well as scroll-reach statistics. Heatmaps are overlays that are shown on top of the content on your website where you can see exactly which parts of the page are getting the most attention. This information is incredibly useful in tweaking layouts for maximizing conversion rates.

ALSO READ: Introducing the New Mouseflow

Final Thoughts

Having a budget can help streamline your usability testing, but at the end of the day, all you really need are people willing to help. By leveraging your friends, family and online communities, you can get the kind of feedback that will help your web design projects reach the level of adding real value to your clients. A beautiful design is one thing, but one that is easy to use, and actually boosts conversions will please your clients, and make you a much more sought after web designer.

Wes McDowell

Wes McDowell is the head of web strategy at Web Design Chicago. He also loves sharing what he learns in the realm of web design, usability and internet marketing through his podcast, as well as through blogging.

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