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Zen & the Art of User Testing


Olivia Hayes
Product Strategist - accpl

Product design of any kind is a challenging process. Most of the time we are designing products for which we ourselves are not the intended audience. Digital product design is further complicated by the fact that what we are designing is somewhat intangible and ephemeral in nature. It’s difficult for users to wrap their heads around digital products because they don’t really have a good mental model for how we actually make these products. They envision a person in front of a keyboard, tapping away, and then through some sort of digital alchemy, software is brought to life.

This mystery makes it critically important that we are vigilant in finding ways to get our users to interact with our digital products during the process of creation. It’s important to watch them, to hear their feedback and then actually find ways to incorporate that feedback into our design iterations to build a better product. It’s no good to just listen if we don’t apply.

One of the ways we can keep our users involved is through user testing. Because my background is in UX design and research, user testing is an important part of our process, and is rigorously implemented. Almost without exception, user testing is as much a moral practice as it is a best practice.

When we remove ourselves from our users, we become egotistical, thinking that we know what is good for the users, or worse, creating internal “experts” on what our users need. The only expert on user needs are the users themselves. We may create user advocates internally, which we should, but what those folks are responsible for is ensuring that the users’ voice and needs are considered, not dictating what those needs are.

Another issue that arises when you remove users from your process is falling into the trap of self-referential design, where you design what you would want in a product, or what your Engineering Director or CEO wants. But these products are not for you, even if you might be part of the intended user base. We design as a service to a community if you want to make something how you like it, make some art.

The reason I am so adamant is that user testing is often a part of the process that gets skipped, and often the reasons referenced are time and cost. So let me provide you with a few suggestions and remind you that some user testing, any user testing, is better than none at all.

If you are concerned about your timeline, you can use an online user testing platform, where you can use a prototype, or a live site and upload your script or steps for testers to complete. Users take a video of themselves going through your test plan, and they typically turn these around quite quickly – in my experience, in about an hour. So you can build one extra day into your schedule for this kind of user testing and get very valuable insights.

If cost is a concern, although the above option is reasonably priced, you can also just go around the office and grab any ol-body that hasn’t seen your design and have them walk through it while you observe. Executive Assistants and HR folks are often great choices for this kind of ad hoc user testing, just try and find someone who isn’t overly familiar with your interface.

Often times I have gone out in the world to do vigilante user testing, which usually consists of a stack of Starbucks gift cards, and asking folks in a coffee shop if they have 10 minutes to help us out. This is a surprisingly effective way of testing and I usually have about a 75% uptake rate.

There really are no good excuses for putting a digital product out in the world that hasn’t been user tested. It compromises your end product, and it’s the result of laziness or lack of creative thinking, which is definitely not a good look for an organization positioning itself as innovative.