Many researchers unfortunately seem to view the five-second test as a quick-and-dirty substitute for other types of research. As a planning strategy, the rule of thumb should be:
The five-second test is the wrong choice for anything requiring more than five seconds’ worth of exposure in order to provide a meaningful answer.
Some common misuses of the five-second test include:
- Testing for usability issues. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many tests ask users to identify interaction flaws or predict errors. You can’t test for usability simply by looking — participants need to interact with an actual working system or prototype in a formal usability test.
- Requiring reading text to answer questions. Reading anything more than a tagline or slogan involves higher level cognitive processes that are better served by techniques that are not subject to a time limit. If the user has to read copy to get the data you need, you’re using the wrong test.
- Comparing designs. Tests that contain multiple visual elements simply put too much demand on the participant to allow for a meaningful comparison within five seconds. (Fortunately, since the publication of my book, UsabilityHub has added Comparison Test functionality to more effectively and efficiently perform comparison tests, although this tool is limited in that it won’t tell you why a participant prefers one design over another.)
- Predicting future behavior. Just you likely wouldn’t make a purchasing decision based on a five-second sales pitch, questions like “Would you hire this company?” or “Would you sign up for this service?” are unfair to the participant. Remember that five-second testing is designed to gauge what the viewer can perceive and recall within a very short amount of time – participants will not be in a position to answer questions like these.
Five-second tests offer convenience and cost-effectiveness, but those factors should never supercede the need to get meaningful data to inform your design decisions. Before testing, always be sure you’re using the right tool for the right job.