Mastering Usability Testing with Sarah Breathnach


In a comprehensive and insightful session, Sarah Breathnach, who holds the role of UX Research Manager at Vhi, shared her extensive knowledge on UX methodologies.

Sarah began her career with a strong foundation in psychology, specializing in health psychology. She pursued a Master’s degree in Behavioral Science and Health, focusing on how small environmental changes can impact health outcomes.

Her work included developing behavioral interventions to improve eating behaviors in the workplace. After gaining experience in a London consultancy and working on her PhD, Sarah transitioned into the field of UX, showcasing the diverse pathways that can lead into the industry.

Sarah’s presentation covered ten key areas in UX design and research:


1. Objective Setting in Research

Sarah emphasized the importance of setting clear objectives at the start of a UX project. She discussed conducting kickoff sessions with stakeholders to understand their needs and expectations. This process includes:

  • determining the key tasks of a feature or product,
  • identifying stakeholders’ concerns,
  • writing problem statements,
  • listing research objectives.

These objectives are crucial for writing user scenarios, which are essential for usability testing.


2. Participant Recruitment

Recruiting participants, as Sarah explained, is often a challenging aspect of UX research. She stressed the importance of selecting representative samples, considering the context of the target user. Recruitment methods vary, including snowball recruitment for academic projects and creating research pools for easier access to suitable participants.


3. Testing Methods – Moderated and Unmoderated

In her exploration of usability testing methods, Sarah differentiated between unmoderated and moderated testing. Unmoderated testing, she described, is faster but offers less depth since it does not allow for real-time interactions.

Moderated testing, on the other hand, provides more detailed insights through direct interaction with participants, allowing for immediate follow-up questions and deeper understanding.


4. Data Analysis and Presentation

Sarah underscored the critical role of data analysis in UX research. She advised on presenting findings clearly and actionably, ensuring they align with the initial objectives. She also suggested consulting with design teams before finalizing recommendations and stressed the importance of including both positive and negative findings in reports.

When it comes to presenting findings to stakeholders, Sarah advised matching findings back to the initial objectives, ensuring clarity and actionability, and consulting with designers. She also highlighted the importance of reporting both positive and negative findings and including visual content for better engagement.


5. Navigating Moderated Usability Testing

Discussing moderated usability testing in detail, Sarah  noted the challenge of managing the pace of testing sessions and the value of silence, where participants often provide crucial information


6. Statistical Analysis in UX

Addressing a question from the audience about statistical analysis, Sarah pointed out the limitations of such analysis in qualitative small sample sizes. She emphasized that for meaningful statistical analysis, larger sample sizes are required, and the data collected in moderated tests are generally indicative rather than statistically conclusive.


7. Creating Rapport and Open Communication

Sarah talked about the importance of creating a comfortable environment for participants in moderated testing. She advised on building rapport and encouraging open communication to elicit more detailed and honest feedback from participants.


8. Challenges and Techniques in Moderated Testing

Sarah delved into the challenges faced during moderated testing, such as ensuring the facilitator remains non-directive and avoids influencing participant responses. She also highlighted the need for follow-up questions to explore unfinished thoughts or responses from participants.


9. Thematic Analysis in Data Interpretation

Sarah described the process of thematic analysis in detail, explaining how it involves familiarizing with data, generating initial codes, and iteratively developing themes. She mentioned using tools like Marvin and Dovetail for efficient data analysis, and for more detailed projects recommended using Clarke and Braun’s (2013) Six-Step Data Analysis Process.


10. Iterative Design and Retesting

Finally, Sarah advocated for the iterative nature of UX design, emphasizing the importance of continuous testing and retesting based on user feedback.


Sarah’s session provided a thorough and insightful look into the various aspects of UX design and UX research. Her background in psychology and health, combined with her experience in UX, offered a unique perspective on the application of behavioral science principles in user experience design.