‘User testing’ can apply to a product at any point in its lifecycle and can be tackled in several ways. When I am asked to run user testing, I always stop to interrogate the objectives, as they will provide the evidence needed to determine the research method. Broadly, I find that user testing is used at three stages of a product lifecycle:

Exploring usability: When products are live, to unearth usage issues and pain points for improvement.

Improving a product: At the earliest stage of development, using prototypes to understand how users interact with new designs. This is usually an iterative exercise.

Validating changes in live: When improvements have been released, I employ user testing at scale to provide evidence of return on investment.

The range of research methods

Many companies fall into a pattern of using one approach – these days it’s usually remote testing. Here are the approaches I use most frequently…

Face-to-face: Users are invited to a facility and observed as they use products on any given device. The skill here is to watch as users progress, observing the micro-interactions and pauses for thought, as well as listening to what users say. Great for improving prototypes.

Remote, unmoderated: By clicking on links, users can start testing products at home without the researcher being present. I use companies like User Zoom or User Testing, allowing for video capture of their usage as they explore or perform tasks. Maze provides usage metrics if that is what is required. Great for validating changes at scale.

Remote, moderated: As above, but with the researcher interacting on a platform like Teams or Zoom as users share their screen. The main benefit is that researchers can ask questions spontaneously, reacting to issues users have. Great for more complex journeys or hypotheses.

In-situ user testing: I love testing products in situ. This usually relates to products that are in retailers – interfaces that need to be adaptable to many kinds of user types. Intercepting customers as they use products has to be one of the most insightful ways to research interfaces. Great for Discovery to uncover problems.

Biometric testing: Eye tracking, Galvanic Skin Response, and Facial Coding are lab-based techniques that provide nonconscious evidence of visual attention and emotional involvement in products. Great for exploration and improvement. You can read more here.

When user testing isn’t the answer

Sometimes I will push back on a request for user testing. It’s usually because the objectives focus on the visual design of products; looking for thoughts, feelings, and opinions, rather than behaviour.

When there are several visual designs under consideration, the 1-2-1 nature of user testing has a distinct problem – overstimulation. People become confused and struggle to express themselves and make decisions on their own.

For visual design research, a discussion group can be more productive. Showing designs to groups of relevant users creates debate and people become more confident in their views about what they prefer.

Researching with total confidence

Knowing how to approach user testing is both art and science. If the right research method(s) are used it can make the difference between findings that have little relevance to project needs, or insights and recommendations that move the project forward with total confidence.

Read more about my user testing services.