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I'm currently rebuilding our entire intranet from scratch, mostly because the tech behind is out-dated and it has been proved that a lot of information is difficult to find.

Though that is beside the point, what I am wondering is what would be the optimum amount of users to use for qualitative and quantitative testing with a userbase of around 1000 users?

Is there a general rule of thumb for both based on the total number of users you have? or is it just say 5 for qualitative and 10 for quantitative?

What would be the best approach?

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This might also be a good question for stats.stackexchange.com. –  Patrick McElhaney Sep 17 '10 at 12:35
    
I'll drop a post on there too then. –  LiamGu Sep 17 '10 at 12:49
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You'll probably be able to get fairly qualitative with 4-5 people. Remember Steve Krug's words: it ain't rocket surgery. –  Rahul Sep 17 '10 at 13:23
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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users Jakob Nielsen suggests:

The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.

However, rather than focusing on the number of users, it might be better to focus on the number and quality of the tasks:

Usability test tasks are so critical that some people argue they are even more important than the number of participants you use: it seems that how many tasks participants try, not the number of test participants, is the critical factor for finding problems in a usability test.

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5 users are ok in qualitative testing, but not sufficient for statistically significant results. But of course, what is the point of proving that the new task can be carried out significantly faster? –  giraff Aug 22 '11 at 9:23
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I don't have a reference for this, but I would think that these numbers would depend on the size of the user base.

For qualitative testing you need to have "typical" users. So if you have 3 roles your users can take you need at least 3 users - one for each role. In reality you'd want more than one, but this is your absolute minimum.

For quantitative testing you need a significant proportion of your user base. I don't know what that number would be, but if you take your user base and 10% as a figure you'll need 100 users. However, this might be unrealistic - there might be no way you can manage that many users, or if you've got a small user base it would produce a very small number.

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Something else to consider is where the result of your usability report is going. How much work can the people downstream from you fix - and what will the effect of those fixes be?

Say I run a test with fifteen people. After the first three I've spotted problems A B C. By the end of the fifteen I've also spotted problems D E F G.

The problem is that the team downstream from me only have time to fix A and B.

Even worse - once we've fixed A and B the system has changed, and the next most serious usability issues may well not be C-G.

So I'd look at the whole cycle time of your product development folk - and only do just enough usability testing to fill the queue of work. Any more than that is likely to be waste.

It's been my experience that doing more usability tests with fewer partipants (even just one)spread throughout the development process is far more effective than few large tests.

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For quantitative testing, it's possible to be more explicit about the effect of the sample size on your results but the number of users you need depends on the particular tests or analyses you are considering (examples could be determining the proportion of participants successfully completing a task, estimating the average time-on-task, comparing two versions with a questionnaire like the SUMI or the SUS…) It's therefore difficult to give a rule of thumb that would be useful for all situations but there are techniques to find out the sample size you need in a given situation.

Now, if you don't want to go over all this trouble and actually estimate things like confidence intervals and statistical power, there are still two important conclusions to remember.

The first one is that the precision of the estimate and therefore the number of users you need to achieve a given level of precision do not depend on the size of your user base, at least as long as this user base is much larger than your test sample. The second one is that the bigger your sample size is, the smaller the improvement you can expect from additional test users will be. Thus, going from 10 to 110 is a huge improvement, going from 1000 to 1100 not so much.

That's why opinion polls often have samples of about 1000 participants, even when the population of interest includes several millions people. In fact, the sample size for a pre-election poll will typically be very similar in countries with 5, 80 or 200 millions inhabitants. As long as your sample is random and the population is much larger, it does not matter if you are asking only 1%, 0.1% or 0.00001% of the total number of voters.

Both of these conclusions are still true for other things than percentages: for example comparisons between ratings on a satisfaction questionnaire or analyses of the time it takes to complete a task. If you want to go futher, one good starting point is Jeff Sauro's website http://www.measuringusability.com/

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