User testing is a key tool to make sure your app's design actually works for the people it's supposed to - your users.
I’m an interactive designer. I work with a team of user experience (UX) professionals to define, design, and build digital products. Every design choice I make affects the way people interact with a website, app, or software suite.
I may design something I think is useful, simple, even beautiful. But what if I inadvertently get it wrong? How do I know if my work is going to help or hurt the people using it?
One of the best tools for determining if your design works is user testing. It’s secret sauce. It’s rocket fuel. And it has made me a much better designer.
During user tests, we invite users who fit certain criteria, defined in our Discovery process, to sit in a room with us one at a time. We ask them to complete common tasks using the product we made while we watch.
If you’ve never seen someone use something you’ve designed, I HIGHLY recommend it. It can be difficult to watch someone stumble and get confused using a site or app you’ve spent months slaving over. And believe me, they will. When a user can’t do something easily, that’s the best and most instructive feedback you could ask for. You find out exactly what’s not working and what needs to change.
Observing someone use your work will drastically change the way you think and design. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned along the way.
That beautiful promo you designed in the right column with the flashy image? It might as well be invisible. People have learned to ignore anything that looks or smells like an advertisement (known as “banner blindness”). Users don’t care about anything that isn’t related to their task. Everything else is an irritating distraction. Watching this happen in real time is brutal.
If your text is small, long, or low contrast, forget it. If it looks small enough to require reading glasses, people will probably skip it. Bigger can be better, and not just for older users. Even users with great eyes find it hard to scan small text easily. Watching a user squint and struggle to read body copy isn’t fun. If you can make your type bigger, why not do it?
Those of us who create digital products take for granted that the web does certain things in certain ways. We’re highly familiar with them and are ready to get creative, to stretch our design muscles. But no one will appreciate design genius if they can’t complete their task or find what they are looking for. Average users have a hard-enough time just navigating back to the homepage let alone using a hamburger menu. They are far from prepared to deal with parallax scrolling, innovative site structure, or design concepts with obscure actions.
If your user base is strictly made up of power users (e.g. other web professionals) then go to town. Try a new navigation structure no one’s ever seen before and let them parallax scroll to their hearts content. Also, lucky you – this never happens.
This sounds like a given, but I can’t tell you how many times I have seen users miss what I thought was an obvious link or button. They largely ignore anything that looks different from the standard and they don’t like variety. Once you establish a visual pattern, users will be confused if you break it. If you start with green links, for example, stay with green links.
It’s best to use a single and universal style for links and buttons. When this isn’t an option – for example, maybe you have to use light text on a dark background, use a unifying style that isn’t color. Underlines, arrows, and icons are your friend.
Anything clickable MUST have an obvious and clear rollover state. If it doesn’t, your user will be confused about whether or not they can click. You can’t, however, rely on rollover states to indicate to users that something is clickable.
If you ask a user what they think of your design, they’re probably going to have something to say. Ad hoc user feedback is extremely superficial and highly subjective. But if you read between the lines, it can reveal important information.
I’ve done a lot of user testing in my career. I’ve learned a great deal about design from watching people try to use sites, apps, and software that I’ve helped create. I can’t tell you what your users need or what works for your project, but the lessons I’ve learned are a good starting point for fixing common user experience problems.
You may or may not believe my conclusions. But that’s the beauty of user testing. You can find out for yourself. At the end of the day, you still need to conduct your own user tests to find out what works (and what doesn’t) for your users.
Along the way, you’ll build your own professional arsenal of best practices. I guarantee you’ll also identify a boatload of things you will never, ever try again.
Bekah is senior UX designer/developer and accessibility expert at user experience strategy firm truematter. Her dual skillsets in visual design and front-end development help her create simple, usable designs that best serve the needs of real people online. She has worked with Fortune 500 clients on end-to-end UX and development projects. As an academic mentor, Bekah was one of the first instructors to join the Columbia, SC chapter of Girls Who Code, an organization that teaches front-end development to girls ages 12 to 18.
You can find more UX articles by Bekah at blog.truematter.com.
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