Hallway Usability Testing and why it is important for your Startup

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Written By cnu

When you design a product, be a website, SaaS Application or a mobile app, usability testing is one important iterative process that needs to be done before shipping the product. Many designers don’t do this and we users end up having to live with bad design cursing the designers.

But first, what is Usability Testing?

Usability Testing

Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product by testing it on users. It gives direct feedback to the product designers into how a user is using their design and what problems they have while using the system.


People new to product design think Usability Testing involves separate rooms for the participants and researchers separated by one way glass, with multiple video cameras recording the participant’s actions. This might be one of the reason many people think that you need to have a large budget and hours of dedicated time to conduct usability testing.

Apple’s Usability Testing Guidelines

Apple’s 1982 Design Guidelines Manual has very simple method to do usability testing for the softwares that was built for Apple IIe.

Our testing method is as follows. We set up a room with five to six computer systems. We schedule two to three groups of five to six users at a time to try out the systems (often without their knowing that it is the software rather than the system that we are testing). We have two of the designers in the room. Any fewer, and they miss a lot of what is going on. Any more and the users feel as though there is always someone breathing down their necks.

They also give a reason why the designers should be in the same room as the test participants as the user’s body language gives valuable information about your design. And being in the same room gives you the opportunity to ask questions directly and immediately at the user when he is confused.

Ninety-five percent of the stumbling blocks are found by watching the body language of the users. Watch for squinting eyes, hunched shoulders, shaking heads, and deep, heart-felt sighs. When a user hits a snag, he will assume it is “on account of he is not too bright”: he will not report it; he will hide it … Do not make assumptions about why a user became confused. Ask him. You will often be surprised to learn what the user thought the program was doing at the time he got lost.

We are just a startup, not Apple

If you are a startup, even the 1982 Apple method of usability testing would be expensive. For a company with just seed funding and 1 or 2 person product design team, it would be prohibitively expensive to bring users in to test your product design with. Especially at the early stages of the product.

For these kind of companies, there is one even more simpler and cheaper solution.

Hallway Usability Testing

A hallway usability test is where you grab the next person that passes by in the hallway and make them to try to use the product you designed. It doesn’t have to be the actual end-users of your products. It can even be other employees who work with you.

user confused with a UI

It costs you almost $0 and you can discover 95% of the problems in your design by spending about 5 mins per user.

But, but, but… Yes, I can hear your concerns and let me get to them one by one:

But, my employees aren’t the end users

Yes, actual usability testing is done on the actual users. And if you are building the UI controls for a cockpit of a plane or a space shuttle, you better get the actual users to test your product.

But most other startups are building websites and apps that can be easily tested first using people near you. Your Snapchat clone or video hosting site doesn’t require PhDs or postdocs to test it. Even if you are building SaaS applications for handling the different tax codes of a company, it would be better to test the first few iterations with your employees.

And even Apple agrees to testing with employees.

You should begin testing as soon as possible, using drafted friends, relatives, and new employees

The best part of using employees is that it is literally free. And it doesn’t even cost the productivity of the people (they are just walking around). By testing the first few iterations of the design with your employees, you can iron out more than 80% of the trivial issues. These are iterations that you could avoid spending money and time on to bring in actual users. Even if you could remove a couple of confusing steps in the UI, it means more people in the funnel and lesser churn (more $$$).

After your internal testing is all done, then go ahead and test it out with actual users.

But, my startup is very small

Doesn’t matter. The ideal number of users in a single iteration of your design is just FIVE.

Jakob Nielsen has a fantastic article on why having 5 users test each iteration brings most bang for the buck. Anything more than that, it yields only diminishing returns. And based on the formula N(1-(1- L)n) in that article, you could uncover 85% of the issues in your design with just 5 users.

user testing diminshing returns curve

If you don’t even have 5 employees to test, then you can go for your neighbours or relatives. But freeze your design and get 5 people to test your UI. Then fix those issues. Rinse, repeat.

But, my employees won’t understand my new-age product’s design

Hmm, That is a real problem. Not with your employees, but with you. If your employees, who you hired because they were smart people can’t understand your design and accomplish the intended task, just imagine the plight of average users who know nothing about your product.

If you can’t get people to use your software for free, it would be very difficult to get customers to pay for the software and use it.

But, they say mean things about my product

That shows that you are doing the test wrong. Usability test involves making the user to use the software or app. Not comment about it.

Do note: Design Critique is different from Usability Testing. Design Critique is done by UX experts who emulate users. Even if you have design reviews/critiques, always have usability testing.

The right way to do a usability test is to take a particular screen and ask the user to complete a specific task. For example: Login with these credentials and upload these 5 photos to a new album.

By making the test so specific, you make it more about the actual flow than about the overall visual beauty of the design. And remember a well designed product doesn’t have to be visually appealing to be usable.

And if the user comments something like, this color “looks like puke” or “makes my eyes bleed”, do take note of those comments. That means you probably need a better color palette.

Other than that, concentrate on the task at hand and gently nudge the user to complete the task. And 95% of the problems in your design will be identified from the body language of the user. Words doesn’t matter.

Also remember that these are users and not design experts who have years of research on HCI/UI/UX/Color Theory. They won’t be able to say why your design is off, but they can feel it. Just like we feel something is off when twitter or facebook changes the icons, but can’t express it clearly.


Hallway Usability Testing is an important tool that all product designers should use multiple times in a day. By doing it with your employees you fix your design iterations faster and cheaper. The faster feedback loop alone is worth the effort and time you put into it. And I wish more companies start doing Hallway Usability Testing right from the beginning of the product design.

Are there any other reasons why you think Hallway Usability Testing won’t work for you? Do leave a comment below.

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