Five-Second Rules Help Build a Better Test (Book Review)

Book coverA review of
The UX Five-Second Rules: Guidelines for User Experience Design’s Simplest Testing Technique
By Paul Doncaster
Morgan Kauffman

Once you start reading this book, you may wonder why the word “simplest” is used in the subtitle, as it quickly becomes clear that there is nothing simple about this testing technique. But if used in the correct context and crafted with mindful care, the method can provide solid, useful data with a minimum of time and effort required from respondents.

Five-second usability testing is what sounds like: an online survey, often unmoderated, where participants are given instructions, then have five seconds to study an image of a design before they answer questions about what they’ve just seen. There’s a lot of data that can be gathered from those five seconds. Conversely, there’s a lot of data that can’tbe gathered, and the distinction between the two is the overarching theme of this compact book.

Five-Second Rules is based on data collected from Doncaster’s analysis of 319 public online tests hosted on the UsabilityHub tool ( Additional data came from small-sample studies created to illustrate the concepts covered in the method’s “rules.” Readers might be concerned about the book’s concentration on a single tool when there are others available (such as UserZoom or Verify). But the book is really a “how-to” for creating studies that provide useful results, not a marketing tool for UsabilityHub. The teaching examples Doncaster uses from the public tests—site images and their study questions—illustrate how to build a strong study, but more importantly, how to create a weak one. Hopefully, readers won’t make the same mistakes.

Early on, Doncaster assumes the reader knows little about how human perception works. Before study examples are provided, there’s a crash course in the bottom-up (stimulus driven) and top-down (knowledge-drive) processes the mind uses to understand visual stimuli. Brief explanations follow for working short-term memory, explicit memory, and memory fade, which results in what the author refers to as the “Reverse Polaroid Effect.” Those who know nothing about perception come away from the section primed with basics that will help them understand the benefits and limitations of the method. Those who already know the information will get a brief and non-boring refresher.

The meat of the book is in the chapter that explains the three types of five-second tests—memory dump, target identification, and attitudinal—and the author’s ten rules, complete with examples of do’s and (mostly) don’ts. Doncaster also discusses the construction of questions and question order, both of which determine if a study succeeds in gathering useful data or crashes and burns with no actionable results. I would recommend this book for UXers who design any kind of unmoderated online study, because the tips on how to write good questions can be used across different types of tools. Those who conduct online studies know that crafting the questions can be the most difficult part of the process.

There are also chapters on using the five-second method to test for trustworthiness and credibility, emotional response, and for testing non-website designs, such as displays for tradeshow booths and PowerPoint slides. After the deep dive into study design and question construction, these chapters seem rushed, and a bit like an afterthought. But they still contain beneficial information.

Another valuable aspect of Five-Second Rules is Doncaster’s repeated reference to three key points:

  • This study method can’t tell you everything. It shouldn’t be relied upon as the only measurement of usability or emotional response, but instead be included in a larger user testing plan that gathers data from a variety of methods.
  • Choose a study method based on the design aspects you’re focusing on. That method very well may not be a five-second test.
  • The questions should be reworked until they are as clear as possible. Doncaster recommends pilot tests and showing the questions to others before launching to ensure the clarity of the questions.

After reading the book, I came away with a clear understanding of when to use the five-second test method, and an even stronger respect for the ability to write high-performing online study questions. While I still prefer a book I can hold in my hand, the electronic version contains links to the published articles and blog posts referenced in the text. This saved a lot of time looking them up.

The Five-Second Rules

The goal of these guidelines is to provide design research strategies that can be implemented regardless of the specific five-second type of tool chosen.

  1. Don’t use a five-second test when a different research method will produce better results for you.
  2. Focus on the specific design aspect(s) you want to test and employ the appropriate test format.
  3. Don’t give participants any excuse to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t ”
  4. Devote time to crafting proper instructions.
  5. Optimize the test image so that scrolling is eliminated.
  6. There is no “magic number” for how many questions to ask, but fewer are usually better.
  7. Order the questions optimally.
  8. Pay careful attention to how the questions are worded.
  9. Ask the “most prominent element” question with discretion.
  10. Open-ended feedback requests carry a high risk of non responses and low-information answers.

McGruder, D. (2015). Five-Second Rules Help Build a Better Test (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 15(2).
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