The Case for User Testing

Who needs to user test their web site or apps? You do.

Not to presume too much, but I am willing to bet that most of the people reading this post have never actually watched a user interact with their designs or products even in a casual environment. For those of you that test and test again, my apologies. And for those of you that have tested a little – congratulations, and keep going. I bet you learned some great stuff right? But by and large, most of the UX and visual designers I talk to have not conducted or benefited from much actual user input.

For many years, that was perfectly OK. The web was experimental, new, dynamic. No one really expected it to work very well. Those days are gone now. If you want to compete in the online world at large, or even in the rarified air of the Canadian online world, you need to ensure that your site or app (in short, your user experience) is on par with what users have come to expect online. Remember, you are being judged alongside the best, whether users realize it or not. Almost every user has interacted with numerous digital experiences (sometimes dozens daily) and brings all of those built up expectations to your product. As Stephen Turbek said so memorably back in 2006 “Your interface is your company”. Don’t you want an efficient, useful, friendly, even beautiful company?

Of course, everyone does. So, why don’t more people engage real users to find out if their ideas are working in the real world? There are a few answers, in my ever humble opinion:

1. No Time

Web projects run much faster than real world projects and people expect results quickly. While modern user testing methods are relatively cheap and efficient, they still take some time and resources to accomplish. It’s difficult sometimes to find time and budget in the plan for user testing, particularly when you consider that unearthing some usability issues could delay launch significantly. I can only say that any time “lost” in the process of making your web site or app usable is not truly lost. If you discover a problem and fix it before you go out to the public, consider the savings in customer service, brand damage, after-the-fact patches, etc. “A stitch in time saves nine” – and never more so than in the digital world.

2. Big Egos

Wether we want to admit it or not, our business can be very ego driven. Designers, product and business leaders, even developers and content creators will often feel like they “know what users want” since they have been well educated, worked in the business for some time, and faced these issues before. Add to this that many of us make our money by putting forward solutions and have come to feel that we know our world pretty well, and it can be hard for seasoned professionals to take the advice of the general public. But if done properly, timely user testing can only benefit the final product.

3. Too Expensive

There is a lingering perception that user testing is prohibitively expensive, and it certainly can be. User testing can go from a few people doing a few tasks in your office to a full blown, multi-year research effort. I advocate starting small, and seeing where your needs take you. Steve Krug wrote a fantastic book on user testing called Rocket Surgery Made Easy, which spells out how to carry out low cost, iterative user testing on your designs to ensure that what you are designing will work in the real world. I highly recommend this book and this approach as a low cost entry point into user testing. In the near future, I will put together a post on my “Quick and Clean User Testing” method derived from Steve’s great book. For now, if you are desperate, pickup Steve’s book and get testing. It’s not very expensive or terribly painful at all!

The Main Reason You Should Test

OK, so now I have convinced you that you can afford to test and that your design will definitely benefit from a little exposure to users, can I get to the real reason you should do this? Because it’s FUN! I have conducted many users testing sessions over the last few years and have never failed to have fun and find out some very useful insights. It helps bring the devs and product folks closer to the true user needs, and reminds everyone that there are real users on the other side of the screen, as it were.