How to get more from your user testing

It’s generally acknowledged that user testing is absolutely key to improving the performance of your website – even if not everybody actually get around to doing it.

After all, whatever you might think, you are not a user – you lack perspective and bring an incredible amount of baggage to viewing your own website:

  • You likely have a whole language that you use in your day to day business, most of which is likely to be unfamiliar to the uninitiated
  • You probably make huge assumptions as to the knowledge that your users will already hold
  • Worst of all, you’ll have fixed preconceptions as to what users are likely to want to see, which are almost certainly, in some respect just wrong.

So don’t rely on your opinion, (or that of the HiPPO), instead get out there and engage with your users: Carry out surveys of people using your site; talk to your customer service or sales people about the issues your customers have; better still, invite in some random members of the public and watch them using your site (without interrupting) and just see what your find out.

Shed your preconceptions

One pitfall with doing user testing (particularly on your own site) is that it is very easy to treat user testing as a chance to prove that your site or your prototype is just what your customers are looking for – jumping on positive feedback and ignoring or dismissing the more constructive, but less welcome, negatives (“Ah, they just missed that help button, that’s no problem”). If you find yourself engaging in that dismissive behaviour, try with all your might to rein yourself in: It’s in that negative feedback where the gold can be found.

Instead treat testing as a scientist would – as an opportunity to refute your own hypothesis. The whole point of user testing is for you to get a fresh viewpoint and encounter new and unexpected events. Maintain awareness of your observations and conclusions throughout your research and, if you find results to confirm your assumptions, then double check you’re not filtering what you’re seeing. Whilst it might be inconvenient or irritating to find that customers don’t agree with you, it’s a lot more valuable.

Find the outliers

Most of the time user testing is about searching for patterns: a number of users that share an opinion about the way something works or who encounter the same problem. Sometimes though it’s worth taking the opposite approach.

Spend some time watching out for anti-patterns – someone who users the site in a completely different way to that you expect. They won’t give you insight into the behaviour of the ‘average’ user, but they might give you a totally new perspective: perhaps an innovative way of presenting information, or a process flow you’d never otherwise have thought of. Look for the reactions you didn’t expect and evaluate them to see if they can teach you anything.

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