Few relationships are more effective than when user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) come together to make a website or application that truly connects with its audience. We get to witness this awesome pairing often, thanks to user testing, when we show prototypes to real-life users and iterate our work based on what we learn.
We conduct this research because we know that to build something successful, we have to get out of our heads—and often our office—to smash our assumptions. Actual website visitors should be telling us how they would use our work. That means going to meet them where they are, whether it’s down the street at the coffee shop or halfway around the world.
Leading the way are Sunjay Morar (senior designer) and Hilary Basch (senior UX designer): desk neighbors, collaborators (and sometimes conspirators), design perfectionists.
They’ve traveled the globe on behalf of our clients to seek insights about users. We sat down with them to learn more about what happens when they invite strangers to test out our team’s meticulously crafted work.
1. Let’s start with the basics.
Why conduct user testing?
Hilary: User testing is a huge help when it comes down to making sure that the project we’re working on will actually resonate with its audience. Sometimes we even start with the existing site to identify gaps and gain insights about user behavior. It’s all about putting an experience in front of people and asking them to show us how to use it. Otherwise, we won’t know if what we’ve designed is going to work for them.
Sunjay: Plus, not all users are the same. We might have a pretty good handle on audience demographics, but within that, you’ll have people who use their computers in different ways, or have different workflows depending on why and how they use an application. Testing really helps surface those differences.
2. How do we typically run a test?
Sunjay: Typically, we’re asking someone who fits a certain user profile to sit down with a website or application, testing across multiple devices. A moderator sits with them and asks questions, or provides prompts for the respondent. Usually, they’re going through a specific task from end to end.
The screen is usually being recorded, and sometimes, more members of the design team are observing in another room, or remotely.
Hilary: Sometimes we’re moderating the test, or we work with a vendor who specializes in user testing. We have one client who conducts global usability testing with us twice a year, in several different locations. It’s great to work with a company that’s so committed to making sure its products work with users all over the world.
3. We might be biased, but we think you’re pretty great. Tell us what it’s like to be in a session moderated by you.
Hilary: First of all, check that bias at the door. It’s really important that our test subjects feel like there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” answer. In fact, our testing script includes a reminder that “you won’t hurt my feelings.”
We try to replicate a real-world scenario as much as we can, so we keep our questions open-ended and try not to be too instructional, even when there are specific tasks we want to test.
Sunjay: It also helps to have a prototype that’s close or identical to what the actual experience will be. But sometimes, when we are looking for more broad information about navigation or a user’s expectations, we’ll keep it super simple and might even use a paper prototype that we move around on the table.
4. It seems like you could design a website a million different ways. How do you use these sessions for guidance?
Sunjay: We’re often using best practices as a baseline, either things that are generally accepted to be good for the experience, or are set by accessibility guidelines and the like. User testing sessions tend to prove that out and help us make a stronger case for designing a certain way.
Hilary: Sometimes we’ll bring different devices into the testing room, so we’re not just using a desktop or laptop computer. Especially with mobile, we’ll discover something new about user behavior, particularly if we’re testing with people in a specific market or audience who do the majority of their web browsing on their phones. For example, China is a really mobile-driven marketplace, where people are more likely to transact on a portable device vs a personal computer.
5. What are some of the places you’ve gone to conduct studies?
Sunjay: I went to Dubai recently to test a client’s native app. They also test in the United States. Every year there are sessions across the U.S, notably some locations we test in are Memphis, Boston and New York.
Hilary: I went to Geneva a few years ago to observe sessions being run by a client. We’ve also sent people to Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and Mexico City, to name a few more.
6. That’s pretty outstanding. But, why travel to so many places?
Hilary: Many of our clients have products used around the world, so it’s important to make sure our work will resonate in different markets.
Sunjay: Sometimes, the time difference even works in our favor. We might see something in a session, and pass notes back to the Tank team in Boston, who have time to make changes to the prototype in time for the next day’s session.
Hilary: Our work is often translated, so it can be invaluable to test with native speakers to make sure it makes sense, either comprehensively or culturally. For example, for one user test we asked users to enter their address. We found that their responses varied widely depending on where in the world they are. It’s a real design challenge, but testing can show us how to make something like an address form more universally usable.
7. Have you noticed any patterns emerge from one locale vs. another?
Hilary: We definitely learn specifics about tactical things like language, and that’s invaluable for validating the quality of our translations. But on the whole, people are similar no matter where they are. If something isn’t usable, the same patterns will emerge.
Sunjay: It might depend more on someone’s personality. If they’re the type of person who likes to offer their unsolicited opinion and provide us a new insight, it probably doesn’t matter where they’re from.
8. Sounds like usability is universal. Is it a small world after all?
Hilary: Well, yes in terms of the fact that people are people, and they typically respond better to best practices. But, not all solutions are universal, and there’s no replacement for sitting right next to someone and seeing and hearing how they would use something. We learn so much from allowing someone else to interact with our work.
Sunjay: Plus, I like flying business class.