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Thinking Aloud Test: Definition and Application

You might have heard before, how important it is to get feedback from your users when developing or relaunching a web application or digital product of any kind. If you haven’t, check out this blog post here about User Experience testing.

Now, one of the UX research methods you can apply to find out more about your users’ behaviour, is a Thinking Aloud Test. Learn here, what this means and how to conduct a Thinking Aloud Test.

What is a Thinking Aloud Test?

A Thinking Aloud Test helps you to understand how a person interacts with your web application, website or digital product. It is a detailed observation of your (potential) users as they perform specific tasks you have come up with.

What’s so special about it? The users are asked to articulate their thoughts while doing the test. Thus, you not only get to observe WHAT they’re doing, but also, WHY they’re doing it and HOW they think feel about what they’re perceiving.

This kind of User Experience test method has first been discussed in 1982, in a research paper by Clayton Lewis from IBM. Ever since, usability and UX experts have been even referring to the Thinking Aloud Test as “the single most valuable usability engineering method“.

How to prepare a Thinking Aloud Test

Before you start setting up your test, you need to first define your goals. Make sure to be aware of:

  • What you want to find out from your users
  • What the standard processes of your website / application are
  • What the user goals of your website / application are
  • Who your users are, respective who your target audience is.

From your standard processes and website goals, develop some tasks you want your users to perform during the test. To dig deeper, you can always add on some questions before and / or after the test itself.

For example, I’ve been asking for relevant information about the test user beforehand, such as:

  • age and gender
  • company size and user’s position within it
  • wearing glasses or contacts, are they color-blind
  • amount of time spent working with a computer / phone or experience in that
  • browser and operating system they’re using for the test

In between the tasks or after the test, you can also ask for specific things that the test user hasn’t been speaking of yet or for a general feedback for the structure / content / design / layout of your website or application.

How to conduct a Thinking Aloud Test

There are basically 3 easy steps to conduct your test:

  1. Find your test users
    Now that you’ve prepared your Thinking Aloud Test, you can start looking for test users. Try to find people that are as similar as possible to your target audience in terms of experience and knowledge in your respective field, as well as age or whatever demographics matter to you.
  2. Tell them what to do
    Give the test user a short introduction: Let them know that not their performance is being tested, but the web application. So they can’t do or say anything wrong. Brief them to always speak freely what’s on their mind. Then, ask your participant to perform the tasks you’ve prepared. Introduce the next task after they finished doing the previous one.
  3. Shut up and listen 
    While your participant performs the tasks, your only job is to listen to what they’re saying and take notes. You might need to remind them to think aloud, if they start to get too quiet. And don’t forget to ask your questions before and after the test.

Conducting a Thinking Aloud Test can give you great insights into how your users interact with your web application. You’ll learn what they think about your design, what content might be helpful or missing and why they might go wrong at a certain step. Always remember to take these valuable insights as a chance to improve. If you do so, you can highly profit from these learnings.