Mar 10, 2020
From identifying pain points to building products that solve user needs, user testing offers valuable benefits to an entire product team. When you place your product in front of people's eyes early and get their feedback, everyone benefits. Product owners validate product decisions, developers save time by implementing tested designs, and marketing and sales get customer input.
The benefits are even more palpable for the designers working day in and day out on a product. Here, four design leaders from across the industry share the key values of user testing based on their experience, along with practical advice on how to get buy-in for user testing in your organization.
I was recently working on the UX design of a time scheduling tool. The issue I faced was that users should be able to set both the location and time. My initial idea was that it would make sense to start the tool by setting up the location and then proceed to the time. So I'm in New York on Mondays and Fridays between 9 am and 3 pm, and in Boston on Tuesdays through Thursday.
However, after talking to users, I found out that they go about it the other way around. The question they wanted to answer first is when and then where, which turns the UX design around and opens up completely different solutions. Change the perspective, change the possibilities.
"A solution doesn't validate the existence of a problem."
One thing we love as designers is to come up with solutions. But the hard truth is that a solution doesn't validate the existence of a problem. By understanding our users, we're able to identify what the actual problem is. It's by solving problems we do our work as designers, not by inventing solutions to sometimes non-existing problems. This is almost exclusively possible by talking to actual users because they use our products in a way we, as designers and stakeholders, do not.
The services we love have taken the time to understand these seemingly minor and irrelevant questions. Usually, with the services we like but don't love, it's small things that make all the difference. Minor things that are right in theory, but feel off in practice.
User testing is essential. I think the UX design process is faulty if the design hasn't been exposed to and tested with real users before it's deemed final. That's because the first iteration of a design solution is usually flawed, sometimes biased, other times incomplete.
I have been in the position in which I was almost 100% sure that the solution was optimal only to discover a lot of issues through user testing. This one time, I was absolutely satisfied with my design, and I felt that everything was perfect. I created the cleanest, most decluttered, white-spacey UI. After user testing, it turned out that the contrast was too low, and many elements were too smooth to be noticed. I made something beautiful but unusable. This was painful to accept at first, but it was a valuable lesson with two main takeaways.
The first lesson is that when designing, you have to leave your ego aside and embrace failure. The second lesson is always to test your designs for accessibility. It seems like a no-brainer to me now, but at the time, this slipped under the radar.
"It's better to fail early than after a design has been implemented."
Ioana Adriana Teleanu
I was lucky enough never to have encountered resistance to doing user testing from my clients or my managers. When that happens, my advice is to bring up the cost-savings of user testing. I think most stakeholders respond to this kind of reasoning. Tap into the idea that it's better to fail early rather than after a design has been implemented. User testing is a critical instrument in helping to refine the solution and deliver a product that's been optimized and iterated upon, thus having a higher chance of success.
User testing is a fundamental part of my design process, just as much as wireframing or creating final comps. Being able to think of every single detail, use case or user flow is aspirational. Testing designs along the process enables me to have feedback from someone as close to my target user as possible and, very importantly, outside of the project team. Nothing replaces putting the new designs in the hands of actual users.
"Discovering the user pain points long before an engineer has done the work of building the interface is much less costly to the business and less frustrating for the developer."
Recently, I was wondering whether something as simple as a "back" button was needed in the header of a desktop app, considering the browser already has one built-in. After about ten tests, it became clear that the browser's back button was not very obvious to the user, and we decided to add one in the app to make the user experience more intuitive. That might seem like a small thing, but the frustration level of a customer when not being able to do something simple is very high. It's also entirely avoidable.
Discovering the user pain points long before an engineer has done the work of building the interface is much less costly to the business and less frustrating for the developer. If I need to inspire a product owner or engineer to do user testing, I will highlight the cost savings and the development time benefits, respectively.
The other strategy that I would recommend is to run a pilot user test with the team to show the impact firsthand. I've found that the more involved the team, the easier it is to show the value and then quantify it in relevant terms.
If you are a mature design organization, user testing should be part of your DNA. Constantly talking and involving your users is key in delivering value. Leaving user testing out of the design process is a failure in the making. I'm not sure why design departments still need to fight for user testing to be adopted by their organizations.
"An organization without a continuous stream of feedback and insights from customers would be a very slow-moving one."
At my current position as Head of Design at Bamboo, user testing is a crucial part of our ongoing efforts to maximize the value delivered to our users. Regardless if it's a core feature that we're building or an improvement to an existing job to be done, we conduct user testing. Doing that doesn't mean we don't believe in our abilities to create something great, but rather that we seek to quickly and cheaply confirm our assumptions, or learn that we are wrong and adapt accordingly.
Having the ability to quickly iterate with your key stakeholders and acquire insights from users is critical for business success. That isn't just true for design but also for product, marketing, and development too. An organization without a continuous stream of feedback and insights from customers would be a very slow-moving one.
If you're having issues with getting user testing approved, depending on your seniority, I'd try escalating this higher in the organization. I would do that to either get a response on why there is no focus on user testing or work with management to help them understand why excluding user testing is way more costly to the business.
A good process for user testing combined with internal priorities will ultimately help any company succeed. Far too many people let their ego drive the work they produce. Just talk to people, ask them questions, and show them that you care. Include users in the process of improving the tools and services you're ultimately building for them. Understand that their success leads to your success.