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Why designers should be part of user testing sessions

They teach you how to handle negative feedback.


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Lauren Dukes

3 years ago | 5 min read

Going back to my love of psychology, learning the fine art of creating and implementing a user testing plan was a real brain treat during my bootcamp.

It took some trial and error before I was able to get a good grasp on the differences between a usability test and a desirability test, how to determine the areas we want feedback on and how to formulate unbiased questions focused on those areas.

Most importantly, I learned how to drill down into the why behind the user’s responses.

Lots of organizations are large enough that there are separate UX research departments that handle the user tests so that the designers can focus on the designing part, and there are excellent reasons and arguments for that set-up.

As with most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to set up your design department when it comes to user testing, but I have found that it is my preference to be involved in user testing sessions whenever I can.

During my design bootcamp, I participated in more than 30 user testing interviews in two months, and these were the lessons I learned and the ways in which it’s made me a better designer.

1. They increase familiarity with user behavior

Listening to users respond to questions about their observations and why they feel the way they do or watching them attempt tasks to test usability is the easiest way to build a base level understanding of how users think and behave.

Learning by doing has always been my preferred method of education and user testing has allowed me to really get in and transform some of the theory I learned into a three (or four!) dimensional understanding. For instance, as I mentioned in my piece on accessible design,

my education had given me a strong foundational understanding of how to design for accessibility, but it wasn’t until after listening to one participant detail her struggle with type that’s too small to read comfortably, the theory came alive for me in a whole new way. I always start my designs with body copy at 16pt because of her.

2. They help bridge the empathy gap

Along with gaining intimate familiarity with the ways in which people think, it also reminds you how differently we think.

It’s all too easy and tempting to design things in the way that makes the most sense to you and if you don’t get that first-hand experience of watching a participant frustrated or confused by your seemingly intuitive design, you might have a harder time designing for a broader user base (aka other than you).

Basically, being present or actively participating in user testing sessions helps develop the skills needed to bridge the empathy gaps designers encounter in their work all the time.

3. They teach you how to handle negative feedback

In a similar vein, forget team crits, user testing sessions are the real training grounds for learning how to hear and accept criticism.

There’s nothing like trying to keep a neutral face while a participant details all the ways in which they think the design you’ve just spent long hours on is cheap, ugly, boring, or confusing (all adjectives I’ve heard at various points) and then asking them why they think that. (Note to self, I should probably start looking into finally playing poker cause I bet I’d be good at it).

It’s natural to feel a little deflated after hearing feedback like that, but it’s helpful for learning how to separate the ego from the work, and focus on the end goal: a strong product.

In product design, you’re seeking the best possible solution and having that mindset makes it much easier to view negative feedback as the valuable insight it is instead of dwelling on the way it can feel in the moment.

User testing sessions help hone that mindset.

4. They hone your listening and interviewing skills

Another thing I noticed during the user testing sessions is how much nuance there was in each interaction that couldn’t be captured in the transcripts or notes.

The pauses, hesitations or perhaps a note of uncertainty in the participant’s voice often acted as signals to me that there might be something of interest below the conscious surface that was worth teasing out.

Most of the participants I interviewed in sessions had never done something like this before, and hadn’t spent much time interrogating their design preferences, so it often took time and probing to help them uncover the underlying thoughts and feelings informing their responses.

5. They teach you how to analyze the quality of the data

Finally, having the ability to listen to participants first-hand helped me determine when we had enough data and when we would benefit from another round of testing.

(Something to note here is that for our bootcamp projects, we relied upon three rounds of user testing with at least six participants in each round which is a smaller sample size than I would prefer. Ideally, the testing group would be larger and we would have a predetermined analysis process for analyzing the results that would outline the standard for qualified insight.)

For instance, in one project that focused on a branding identity, we began with a round of user testing to check the desirability of the four design options we had in the form of style tiles.

Our goal was to converge the four design directions into a single direction and based on the feedback we received, it sounded like users most preferred Style B,

but because my partner and I were running the tests ourselves, we could tell that the participants were struggling to understand the concept of a style tile despite our best efforts (I wouldn’t test style tiles with users in the future) and our intuition told us that we needed another round of testing.

So rather than converging our designs, we developed all four designs into a few high fidelity screens and tested them all in another round.

Our intuition paid off and with the clarity of the branding in a high fidelity mockup, we were able to gain more specific and actionable insights, ultimately blending several designs into a single design direction.

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