UX + Design

The incredible power of user testing

Something extraordinary happened here last month. With some simple user testing, a relative handful of customers caused two leading global brands to alter the course of their online business presence.

In one case, a client discovered its visitors weren’t interested in an expensive new feature it was considering. In the second, a client was able to validate its new site structure, but found its customers struggled with their product messaging. In both cases, the business benefits achieved far outweighed the time and resources invested in the testing.

Customer involvement makes better experiences

Every year companies spend billions of dollars developing new products and experiences for the web, only to launch them to an indifferent reception or worse. Most of these struggling features share at least one thing in common: their creators didn’t seek customer feedback early in the process.

Testing always helps, and even the worst test with the wrong user will show important things you can do to improve your sites.

Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think

If you think it’s too costly or time-consuming to involve your customers in ideation and design, think again. The cost of excluding them can be much higher. Research shows that correcting problems when a product is in development costs 10 times as much as fixing the same problem in design. If the product is already in the marketplace, it can cost up to 100 times as much relative to fixing it in design. And that’s just the financial cost.

Here’s how you can test quickly and cheaply and still get the insights that will put you on the road to success.

It’s never too early to listen

There are many creative ways to get feedback and insights from your customers during the design process:

  • Observe customers using your current web experiences to get their impressions and uncover pain points
  • Watch customers use your competitors’ sites or products to see what they think works and what doesn’t
  • Show customers your early concepts on paper, before they are designed in detail or built, to get their reaction

A simple sketch will do

You don’t need to show your customers a fully designed and functioning web or mobile site in order to get their reaction to it. In fact, reviewing a simple sketch or paper prototype is often all you need to garner important and sometimes surprising insights. Paper prototypes are especially useful for:

  • Sharing new navigation schemes and naming conventions to find out if they are intuitive
  • Testing new features or changes to existing features, like a search form or shopping cart, to see if they make things better or worse
  • Even small groups of customers can produce big insights

    You don’t need to show your ideas to a large number of customers. In fact, getting feedback from just a handful early on can be more valuable than asking dozens later in the development process.

    A small sample size of six to eight customers is usually a good target for testing. Ideally, you’ll speak to members of your target audience, especially if you are creating a niche product. But if your new site or feature is for a broad audience, showing your ideas to anyone, even your neighbor or your Uncle Max, can uncover important insights.

    You don’t need a formal lab

    For testing user reactions early in the design process, a formal lab environment isn’t necessary. The conference room down the hall will work just fine. All you need is a table, a chair, a moderator and a test subject. Just make sure you take notes to share with your design team later.

    Leave your assumptions at the door

    The trick is not to over-guide your participants. Give them a general idea of what the site or feature is for, or describe a scenario or objective for them, then let them respond as they would when using a real website on their own. You’ll want to develop a script in advance to ensure consistency from one participant to the next.

    Once you’ve gathered insights from your customers, it is time to analyze and act upon them. You may uncover a “showstopper” that requires you to radically alter the course of your product. More likely, you will come away with a list of important refinements and improvements. We experienced both of these outcomes last month. The most important thing is to capture and share those insights with your design team so it can act upon them.

    Want a better web presence? Just ask.

    Involving your customers early in the design process lets you encounter roadblocks and surprises at a time when you can correct them nimbly and inexpensively. It’s the most effective way to ensure your products will be valued and used by the people they’re intended for. Almost any effort you make to get customer feedback, no matter how small and informal, will save you time, money and potentially embarrassment in the long run.