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A Fresh Perspective on User Testing

Catalina Butnaru - Monday, August 20, 2012 |

This is the perfect time for web entrepreneurs to start a business. There's a sizable market to interact with, and building a web app is only getting easier. However, even if you're lucky or well connected enough to kickstart the project, one of the things you may struggle with is user testing. It might seem impossible for micro-entrepreneurs to conventionally test their products when they have almost zero budget and a small team of developers and designers. The good news is - with a little creativity and a deeper understanding of the lean startup methodology, user testing can easily become a fun and painless part of turning ideas into products.

We will show you how to see user testing through a new set of eyes, how to put the lean startup philosophy to use and how to help make sure you've got the right tester in your team.

Ad-hoc usability tests
"Ad-hoc Usability Testing" by Vasile Cotovanu, on Flickr

Curious Facts About User Testing

The birth of dozens of web usability methodologies is probably one of the most controversial and confusing aspects of user testing. There are hundreds of books written on this subject and even more companies specialized in user testing. From a distance, this abundance of ideas leads to a couple of interesting facts about user testing. Here's what is important...

User testing is not a discrete event, but a continuous part of product development. User testing is often perceived in isolation, and even its methodologies have evolved separately, inspired by numerous schools of thought in interaction design. It took a while before the idea of the lean startup placed user testing back into the ongoing research-design-build process.

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Usability Testing with Anna Dirks" by Raphael Quinet, on Flickr

In a lean startup environment user testing becomes "validated learning", which means that a team will test as often as possible, at every stage of product development, and continue until after the product launches. This approach may be a reminder of the idea of test-driven or behavior driven development, a software testing technique, where testing and coding evolve in symbiosis. While BDD is an important practice for developers, it does not guarantee a flawless product from the average user's perspective. Concepts like "validated learning" need to go hand in hand with testing and fixing issues in code: it gives entrepreneurs and coders the chance to find smaller problems in the way the product is designed to interact with users, and creating a better experience overall. In the same way that BDD gives a developer the opportunity to find errors in his code as he writes it, validated learning lets an entrepreneur test his ideas with users as his product is being built.

User testing is not a game of numbers, and no number should be more prominent in the decision making process than a direct conversation with your actual customers. One of the only numbers entrepreneurs should focus on is their conversion rate from trial accounts into paying customers. Startups need to be careful to ensure they do not become consumed by "vanity metrics". Small teams often form the habit of asking real people, like friends and colleagues, what they think about the product. It's a healthy practice, called "guerilla testing", that can save a lot of time and money. Search out potential power users early on and ask them to try your product as you are building it. Collect feedback, adjust goals if needed, implement, repeat.

guerilla testing!
"Guerilla Testing" by Amanda Etches, on Flickr

User testing and usability testing make a great pair, but should not be confused. While the first one works with concepts like user scenarios, tasks and MVPs, the second one focuses on the quality and smoothness of interaction between users and software. As straightforward as it sounds, unexperienced entrepreneurs may start with a terrific idea, go through all stages of usability testing, but end up making a beautiful product that nobody will use, simply because testing the prototype with actual people was altogether skipped. Of course no one wants to put in all those long hours of hard work only to find out they just built something no one wants to use.

What Makes a Great Tester?

Whether it's a two person company or a small team where everyone does some amount of testing, it's crucial to know what makes an excellent tester. A few years ago, a web designer was somebody who used Photoshop to design and slice websites. Now, that definition not only seems to overlook other important skills, such as: the ability to translate a vision into design, a profound understanding of usability and interaction principles, and so on. Similarly, a tester is much more than someone who finds and fixes bugs. So how to you find the best tester for the job?

A reliable tester can learn fast and adapts to the team's pace and style. The dynamics between testing and implementation need to support teamwork, or it will impact the team's overall productivity. A great tester understands what kind of feedback she needs to give, for the engineers to correct the issue.

A skilled tester is not only proficient in understanding the application's business logic, but also skilled with people. A tester should know how to experience the product they are testing from the average person's point of view. They should also be able to remind engineers when they've built a destroy and create function but forgot to implement a way for the user to edit. Explaining the results so that everybody understands is the key to making convergent decisions during the different stages of product development.

Web typography and you
"Web typography and you" by Jamjar, on Flickr

Speaking of people skills, good testers are good listeners and observers, because - once the task starts - users will provide more answers spontaneously and through non-verbal clues, rather than if asked to describe their experience.

A great tester and a good friend indeed is somebody who understands testing, but draws conclusions with a business sense. Assessing the risks of a delayed scheduled is essential at any stage of product development. Some web apps need to be launched sooner or never, others need to be polished and tested more thoroughly.

The ideal tester interacts with potential customers, is organized with an extensive database of bugs and testing tools and orchestrates them to reach her goals. She brings more value to a startup because she has learned where to look to spot problems early on, and she knows when the direction of a particular feature should be questioned.

Endnote: It's important to place constant testing back into the making of a successful product. What advice would you give to someone just starting to work on their own product? Share your thoughts on testing apps and websites below and join our conversation about user testing on Twitter!


Comments
Dan Bakan commented on 22-Aug-2012 09:07 AM
Very interesting read. I like the idea of guerilla testing and offering coffee and muffins for a quick test. Inviting foreingers for testing issues may be better in some cases than letting only friends test your product, since they may have a basic understanding
of what you're doing already, as you may have told them about your ideas before. Anyways, very useful article!
Merissa commented on 24-Aug-2012 02:49 AM
Fantastic blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? I'm planning to start my own blog soon but I'm a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many options
out there that I'm totally confused .. Any recommendations? Appreciate it!
Catalina Butnaru commented on 27-Aug-2012 11:30 AM
Hi Merissa, It's great that you enjoyed this post. We have already wrote about what makes a successful blog and how to create good content for your business as a writer. Hope you find more useful information here as well:

Why Content will Always Be King.
Doyle commented on 29-Aug-2012 07:49 PM
I was curious if you ever considered changing the structure of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text
for only having 1 or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?
Catalina Butnaru commented on 30-Aug-2012 09:33 AM
We are currently improving it: we are working on a new, clean, beautiful and responsive website that will be ready soon!

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