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If you’re only testing for usability, you’re missing the biggest pieces of the puzzle

| June 1, 2016
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When most people think of user testing, they think of testing a live product for usability. Can users figure out how to use the product? Where are they getting stuck or confused? What can be improved?

But that’s not the most important thing you should be testing.


There’s no point in making a product usable if no one wants to use it in the first place.

While most user testing focuses on answering the question, “Can people use it?”, we recommend asking these three other questions first:

  • “Do people want it?”
  • “Do people love it?”
  • “Will people use it?”

But here’s the catch: If you wait until your product is live before you can answer those questions, you’ve waited too long. Making major changes to your product at that point will be more expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating than if you had made those fixes before launching.

Instead of waiting until you have a live product to get user feedback, you can save a lot of time and hassle if you do user testing much earlier in development. By testing early, you’ll be able to answer bigger questions about whether users see the product fitting into their lives, whether it solves a need, and what they would change if they could. Then, you’ll be able to pivot quickly before you’ve invested too much time in development. That means you’ll significantly minimize the risk of releasing a product that flops.

So how do you test for whether people will want, love, and use a product?

1. Do exploratory research during concept development

Before you embark on developing a solution, invest time in exploring what Dan Olsen calls the problem space. In this phase, you’re aiming to find out if the problem you’re hoping to solve is a problem that needs solving. You’re also learning how people are currently addressing the problem. What other tools do they use? Have they developed any workarounds to solve (or avoid) the problem? How frustrated are they by the problem?

To answer these questions, you’ll need to conduct generative research with your target audience. With generative research, you don’t need an existing product at all. However, you’re not asking users what they want. It’s your team’s job (not your users’ job) to design the solution. You’re just gathering intel and ensuring that you aren’t solving a nonexistent problem.

2. Validate your solution early in prototyping

By now, you have a clear picture of the problem to be solved, so you can start hypothesizing solutions. Keep an open mindset at this stage. You may come up with several solutions that aren’t quite right, and that’s okay. Prototype testing will help you avoid investing too much time in any one idea, so you can iterate based on user feedback on your early wireframes.

In this stage, it’s crucial to get feedback from your target market, not your colleagues or friends. You need honest and unbiased opinions. Ask users how they could see the product fitting into their lives. What do they think it’s for? In what scenarios do they think it’s supposed to be used?

People aren’t very good at predicting their future behavior, so try to stay away from leading questions like, “How often would you use this product?” Instead, encourage them to talk through their ideas about the product and pay close attention to any emotion (or apathy) they express.

3. Ask, “What would you change?” later in prototyping

Once you’ve got a clearer idea of where your product is headed, you can use user feedback to refine your idea, eliminate unnecessary features, and add anything that’s missing.

User testing interactive prototypes in a tool like InVision is a great way to get that feedback. Have users explore the product as they normally would, and find out if they can quickly figure out how (and why) to take the key actions they need to complete. Once they’ve done so, ask, “If you had a magic wand, what would you change about this product?”

That’s where you’ll get the insights that can change a lukewarm product into one that users will want, love, and use. And you’ll be able to make those decisions before your team writes any code, while changes are still easy and inexpensive to implement.

Continuous user testing helps you go beyond usability

The key to answering your big-picture questions is to get user feedback early and often throughout your development process, rather than waiting until you have a live product.

To learn more about the process, check out Edmond Lau’s story of how his team at Quip integrates continuous user testing into their development process to build better products more efficiently.