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User testing is an important part of our product development process. It helps our team better understand our clients’ customers. It also helps us uncover issues and opportunities that make for better products.

But for some companies, the phrase “user testing” sends up all kinds of red flags. They worry it will be a hard, time-consuming process. They fear the tests will add weeks to the project.

But in reality, there’s a very straightforward way to get this important user feedback. We’re happy to share our process here. But first, let’s talk more about the advantages of user testing and the different types of tests you can conduct to fully understand how your ideal customers interact with your product.

The case for user testing

In addition to the benefits we mentioned above, there are lots of advantages to including user tests in the product development process. First, these tests help companies build empathy with their target customers. Many internal teams are too busy keeping their business humming to dogfood their own product.

User tests give everyone on the team, from consultants to CEOs, a fresh perspective on how people actually use the product. They help businesses identify what their target audience wants and, more importantly, needs. This leads to better, more tailored solutions — and ultimately, higher adoption rates and more sales.

For most projects, integrating tests into the research process adds only a week or two to the timeline. But they can save weeks, if not months, of development time. Or more accurately, redevelopment time.

Studies have shown that as much as 50% of engineers’ time is spent fixing problems that could have been avoided in the first place by research methodologies like user tests.

This is why it’s an important step in all of our design and product projects. We want you (and more importantly, your users) to love what we build — the first time around.

The different types of user tests

User testing comes in several flavors.

Discovery research. This is where we try to understand people’s latent needs and/or uncover the real problems they need to solve. It’s most often used when a client is developing a brand new product or service. We might share a few high-level prototypes with a handful of users to understand which best serves their needs. Then, we work with the client’s engineering team to home in on potential products that will be exciting to potential customers and relatively easy to build.

User feedback sessions. In these sessions, we share a mockup with select users to get initial feedback and ideas for improvement. We want to learn whether we’re accurately solving their problems. We also want to understand whether or not users like the design and find it easy to use.

Assessment testing. We might run these tests on a client’s current website or even one of their competitors’ sites. The goal is to understand where people are getting stuck. Based on their feedback, we can make recommendations to improve the experience and/or flow.

Our super-straightforward user testing workflow

Below is the process we typically follow for user feedback sessions. These are the most common types of user tests we perform. They’re also likely to be the most helpful in your internal processes.

We’ll tackle discovery research and assessment testing in a future post. Pinky swear!

The tools we use (and don’t use)

There are many user testing tools and sites out there. We don’t use them.

For one, many of these tools use scripts that unintentionally create bias. That negates the whole point of user testing: to get objective feedback on your prototype.

Second, most of these services don’t let you interact with the testers. We always enjoy kicking off our user tests with a few minutes of getting-to-know-you banter. This helps build rapport and learn more about the problems you’re trying to solve, the competitive landscape and other helpful information that can lead to a better end-product.

Finally, and this is perhaps the biggest reason, the lack of interaction means you can’t ask follow-up questions. The user says they don’t like something. Great! But you can’t ask them why they don’t like it and what would make for a better experience.

That said, sometimes the user testing tools out there can be helpful if you’re in a pinch and need to get fast feedback on a prototype. In those cases, we’ve been especially impressed with

Gathering people to test our products and prototypes

By the time we get to the user testing phase, we typically have a pretty solid understanding of the company, their product and their customers. To find testers who represent the product’s ideal users, we work with either the client’s current customer base or our respective networks.

For most tests, the panel consists of just three to five users. That always surprises people. They expect we’ll need a lot more users to get results. But studies have shown that three to five properly conducted tests are all you need to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not.

To incentivize participation, we may offer our testing panel a gift card or some other sort of compensation.

But for the most part, we tend to shy away from offering payment — for several reasons.

  • Paying folks can create a bias. People may feel like they can’t be critical about the prototype. The whole point of user testing is to get honest feedback. We don’t want a gift card to hold us back from our goal.
  • We typically design products for end users who are in a niche industry or are already making decent money. A $50 Amazon gift card won’t tempt them to cancel their calls for the afternoon.

In most cases, if the person will be the end user of the product, they’ll usually want to give us their feedback. They want a product that will make their lives or jobs easier. They want to have a say in the end result.

That’s another benefit of conducting tests on a 1:1 basis (instead of using a service like Maze). We don’t like working with anonymous testers who won’t be using the product once it’s released.

We want the real deal.

Conducting the actual test

Each test is conducted individually and lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. Often, scheduling the tests is the most time-consuming part of the process because everyone’s busy. We use tools like Calendly, Doodle and Google Calendar’s appointment slots to speed up the process of finding a time that works for all.

On the day of the test, we typically share a clickable prototype (usually built in Figma) on Zoom, which allows for easy screen sharing and recording.

After our introductions and assuring them that this is not a test of their skills, it’s a test of the product, we have three simple requests.

  1. First, we show them the prototype and say, “Tell us what you see.” This open-ended prompt allows us to understand their first impression.
  2. Then, we ask: “What do you think you should do next? And why?” This helps us understand how a typical user will interact with the product.
  3. Finally, we ask: “Before you click the button or move on to the next page, what do you expect to happen?” This helps us understand latent needs and expectations.

That’s it. No fancy tools or complicated processes required.

How to launch a successful product with user tests — a quick case study

A few years ago, we helped a client develop a product designed to help kids who suffer from night terrors. The solution consisted of two parts: an app and a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device that was placed under the child’s pillow.

When a parent or caretaker saw that the child was experiencing a night terror (best described as a nightmare on steroids) they’d press a button on the app. This would trigger the BLE device under the child’s pillow to vibrate. The movement would stir the child enough to interrupt the night terror, but not enough to wake them.

When it was time for user testing, we were soooooo excited. We had designed the app with kids in mind. It was bright, fun and cheery. We were smitten.

But the parents weren’t digging it. They said the white background was too bright to use in a kid’s room at night. They worried the flashlight-like screen would wake the child and cause even more disruption to their sleep schedule.

We hadn’t thought about that. But it was the exact insight we needed.

We redesigned the app to have a darker background. We also simplified the user interface so it was easier for the parent to find the button in the darkened room.

User testing for the win!

Your turn

There’s a lot to say about user testing. If you have questions, hit us up on Twitter or use our contact form to ask away.

We’re here to help!

Leslie has 15 years of experience and 10 years of practice-level leadership with a strong balance of strategic and tactical execution in both the logic of product management and the art of product design. She is an expert at discovering the most essential elements of a product, and working to clarify teams’ understanding in order to drive top-notch design and execution. Having worn many hats across roles in consulting, entrepreneurship, and consumer product companies, she draws from a wide range of experiences and perspectives.

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