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Ten User Testing Ideas that Really Work

Lab Zero is a development and design agency in San Francisco

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Whether you’re building a swingset in the backyard or coding a blockchain ledger for microtransactions, you’ll soon know the value of user testing. Sometimes just trying to find the users to talk to teaches you something that you can put into your product. Listening to the voice of your user is such a powerful thing--we think these ten ideas will help you start off on the right foot.

#1: Dedicate Yourself to Learning

User testing is about learning from your customer. Form a hypothesis ahead of time, so that your customer interaction will produce results you can act on. Focus what you show to the customer and the questions you ask. A corollary to this (phrased in the negative) is ‘Test as if you know you’re wrong.’  The researchers’ frame of mind is just as important as preparing the hypotheses and prototypes.

#2: Use a Facilitator

A good facilitator can tell whether you are meeting your learning goals (validating or invalidating your hypotheses), and uses opportunities to learn even more. He or she keeps things moving, is  super-considerate of the customer, and always knows how much time is left.

#3: Have a Plan--Have a Script

When a conversation is important, it pays to think ahead about how it will go. We use a script for several reasons:

  • Reduces variables: keeps the personal style of the interviewer from influencing the response of the customer too much and helps you to standardize user feedback across several sessions.

  • Helps to remind you of the questions you want to ask, so that you get everybody to answer the same questions

  • Keeps you on track to make the most of your time during the interview

  • Eliminates any ‘dead space’--when an avenue of inquiry is winding up, you can move quickly to the next topic

  • Provides the rest of your business a template and real-world examples for them to use as they propagate the practice

#4: Show, Don’t Tell

Most people are better at reacting to a prototype or a picture than they are at answering questions. Create a rich environment for the customer to react to, and make sure that by reacting to the experience, they’ll be validating or invalidating your hypotheses. One caveat: when you don’t know what your customers’ problems are, you don’t create a rich prototype that illustrates a solution; rather, you create more open-ended resources that, during conversation, can help to tease out what those problems are. Here are some tools you can use to enrich the interview:

  • Stories. Based on your hypotheses about the problem space of the customer, create stories that the customer can react to. Don’t try to predict exactly what their experience is, but rather to give them something to react to, to contradict, or to add detail to

  • Drawings. A drawing is a great anchor for a five-minute conversation. It has just the right level of interactivity, and strikes a balance between understanding and eliciting a gut reaction

  • Prototypes. Tools like inVision are really good for constructing a ‘corridor of exploration’ for a customer to see what a solution space looks like

  • Slideshows. Sometimes slideshows are awful. But when the slideshow is designed to guide your activity it can be really helpful. The slideshow is a reminder to the customer that we have a structure for getting their feedback. It’s easy enough to ignore a slideshow if you’re getting good data. But it’s really helpful when you’ve gotten really good info on one topic and you’re ready to move efficiently to the next topic

#5: Always Have an Interview Scheduled

This is an investment that pays off again and again. Rather than getting to the design kickoff and having to conduct a fire drill to find users to interview, it’s far better to join a user interview ‘train’ already in progress; so we advocate having a regularly scheduled set of interviews, and developing the concepts and prototypes to test in time for the interview cycle.

#6: Listen, But Watch, Too

Users say and do contradictory things all the time. In some research scenarios--like a survey, for example--you only know what a user tells you. And in other scenarios--like an A/B test--you only know how many people clicked through to Option A or Option B. In an interview, you can gather both direct and indirect feedback at the same time. When you do that, you expose contradictions, and you can ask more questions to figure out what’s going on.

#7: Document and Socialize What You Observe

Document your raw observations, and document your conclusions, so that you can tell which is which. The more people can see your raw data, the more value your interview has. Reuse templates that streamline and standardize the experience of gathering primary feedback and recording conclusions. Once you find a rhythm you can work more efficiently.

#8: Talk to the Right People

Work with the people closest to your customers to figure out who to talk to. Sometimes you can figure out the characteristics of the users you need from a database, and sometimes the knowledge is institutional. Customer support and operations are great places to stop and ask who fits the description of users you need for your research.

Often, your research subjects map to the personas you’ve created, and sometimes there are additional factors that help you decide whom to select. For example, it may be important to select a younger, primarily mobile user but also to have a more mature, primarily desktop user to talk to. It may be important to select not only a user who primarily browses and watches the activity of others, but also a user who is more active and generates content and actions within your system.

#9: Value Your Customers’ Participation

Demonstrate that you value the time of your customer:

  • Compensate them

  • Do something nice for them that actually takes some of your time to do

  • Be flexible in scheduling them

  • Introduce them to your team

  • Be efficient with their time

  • Be polite

It takes extra effort to do something nice for a stranger you just met, but when you go back to ask that person for the fourth or fifth time to give feedback, you’ll be glad you did it.

#10: Always Ask Why

‘Why’ seems like an easy question to ask, but sometimes your desire to appear to know all the answers gets in the way. Instead of imagining that you are revealing enormous gaps in your knowledge, focus instead on the value of active listening, and use the word as a way to get your customer to reveal even more of what they’re thinking and feeling. We have lists of different ways to ask ‘Why’ so that we don’t sound like five-year-olds.

And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor...

The Lab Zero team feeds insights fueled by user testing into most of our client work. We know that the right level of research helps our team to build the 'right' thing. How might Lab Zero help you establish a user testing program that fits your company's needs? We would love to hear about your experience with User Testing. We welcome your comments and contact. 

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