The importance of pilot testing your user research

What is piloting?


Kelly Batchelor

3 years ago | 5 min read

If you’re reading this through the lens of a product designer, I’m sure there’ve been times where your stakeholders were itching for you to conjure some spec-ready designs at the drop of a hat.

They want to crack on with building the feature/page/concept you’re exploring — and time is money god damn it! However, as every great product-first company knows, a focus on user research should lie at the heart of its decision making (or influence it at the very least).

I’m lucky enough to work for one which values this practice immensely.

However, user research is only valuable if you ask the right questions.

I’ve put my blood, sweat and creative tears into a prototype, written a discussion guide, given the whole thing a 50th check, and am quite frankly ready to press launch and head to the pub. It’s at this point I’ve missed one vital step in the process, which can be easy to overlook — piloting.

What is piloting?

Simply put, ‘piloting’ means giving your user research a test spin with a couple of people who aren’t closely associated with the project before you launch it into the wild. It follows the same principles as proof-reading that all important essay before you hand it in, or running a test episode of a TV show to see if it has any interest.

So why is piloting user research important? Well, the answer is threefold…

1 Never underestimate a fresh pair of peepers

Sometimes you get so engrossed in the project you’ve been working on that you miss glaringly obvious mistakes. We all do it, we’re human beings.

At this point, having someone who is completely removed from what you’ve been working on can really help you iron out those naughty little spelling mistakes that seem to have creeped into your discussion guide, or point out ‘you don’t spell ‘as’ with two ‘s’s, Kelly 😳’.

You want your user research to be formatted in the most professional way possible, as after all, it is reflective of your brand.

The same applies when you’ve structured the flow of your discussion guide. It might make complete sense to you whilst you’re stitching it together, but after watching a couple of pilot users navigate around your prototype, observing the way somebody else is using this may give you some fresh ideas to format the study in a new way.

2 You’ll consider things you’d never previously thought about

Around this time last year, I was tasked with the job of redesigning the ‘Places to Stay’ page on Culture Trip’s website. It wasn’t meeting any user needs in its current state.

A lot of prior user research had gone into the types of information users would like to see on the page to help them find the accommodation of their dreams. Surprise surprise, a map was one of them. We also wanted to showcase some editorially selected hotels on the page.

Oh hi there big map! 📍

I was absolutely buzzing about taking this to user research, as I’d built a pretty flashy prototype (if I do say so myself 😏). You could click on each pin and it would change state whilst the corresponding hotel item cards underneath snapped to the carousel — CHECK ME OUT.

The pins!! The snap!! Oh mama 📌

After writing out my discussion guide and proudly setting up the study, I decided to pilot this on my flatmate.

To my utter disbelief, she was immediately stumped by the first task of “please demonstrate how you would find a hotel in the neighbourhood called ‘Causeway Bay’”.

She instinctively began to scroll the map with her finger. SCROLL! Why did I not consider that’s how some users would get around a map?! Thankfully it was a quick fix on, and when it finally went out to users, a good proportion of them scrolled through the map with their finger rather than clicking on pins. Thank god for piloting eh.

Omni-directional scrolling on the map, oh yeeeeeah

A small example like this shows there’s almost always more than one way to tackle a challenge. Watching others find their way through the tasks you’ve set can often make you realise this. The beauty of user research (and the big bad world in general) is that everybody is different.

Therefore what might be totally illogical for one person may make complete sense to another, and we’d be failing at our jobs as product designers if we didn’t acknowledge this and cater for it when necessary.

My scrappy old notes after two rounds of piloting 🗒️

3 It’s a great way to get your ideas out to the wider company (and make friends in the process)

I’d been working at Culture Trip for a matter of days when I got stuck into my first user research project. We were on the verge of showcasing hotels on our site, and noticed we were using the same pool of vocabulary to describe the style of a hotel.

We wanted to collect information around how users naturally described hotels rather than slap the word ‘boutique’, ‘luxury’ and ‘budget’ on everything and hope for the best.

I’d set up a simple flow with imagery and questions, and braved an @here message on Slack (for those of you who don’t use Slack, @here notifies everybody in the company, eeek) asking if anyone had a spare 5 minutes to help with some UX research.

Next thing you know, I’d managed to pilot the study with various colleagues in the legal, content and engineering teams*. Not only were they all dead interested in the study, but it also encouraged the start of friendships with some of the wider company thanks to that first encounter.

Piloting research amongst those in a different department or discipline will greatly increase visibility, both of yourself and your projects, which could really work in your favour later down the line. And hey, you might even make some buddies in the process. 👯‍♂️

*You can always use bribes such as biscuits and cake to entice your co-workers too — something I’ve definitely done in the past and definitely works #willpilotfortreats

So there you have it gang. Pilot your studies before you send them out to users and you’ll end up getting the absolute most out of your user research. I even made my colleagues proof-read this article before it was published — a pilot test on my article about pilot tests — #pilotception if you will. It’ll make your user research that much more worthwhile.


Created by

Kelly Batchelor







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