User test your own designs

28 Sep

There is something strangely liberating about sitting in a hotel room with a complete stranger and a laptop.

Now stop right there, this is a user test for a website re-design, what were you thinking? And the room is a meeting room.

This redesign project started many months ago. As the designer I’ve been working on page designs along with our user experience manager for quite a while. We’ve created various concepts, binned quite a few and put one or two to one side for now.

You get to a point where you really need a bit of further guidance and input to your designs. So whom do you ask? Stakeholders, who gave you the project in the first place, have a skewed perspective on the product they’re selling; it’s impossible not to.  The answer to the question is plain old internet users.

Plain old internet users are a very wide and eclectic bunch. Maybe for the site we’ve designed we don’t want any 17year old teenagers but we do want 30 something mums and dads. One phone call to a market research company and we’ve sorted out 6 candidates to come and test our designs. Why 6? I hear you ask, 5 is ideal but 6 protects you against someone not turning up.

The set up in our hotel meeting room is a lap top connected via a cable to another laptop in the room next door were we record the whole session on webcam and also the cursor activity on the page with Morae. As I’m very interested in user experience and what real users do on our site I take a few of the candidates through the test.

Cue the user!

Karen* comes in and I offer her a drink. She signs a few forms agreeing to be recorded and away we go. Before I ask her to start using the mocked up site I ask a few questions about her internet habits and about the subject matter of what we’re testing today. For example if it was a shopping site I’d ask her how many times she shops on line and her favourite sites.

Lets get started then. I give Karen a typical task we expect people to carry out on our site. Everything is going as we expected until I ask Karen “on this page is there a way to change your search options?” This is an important part of the page and it’s pretty dam obvious to myself what to do as there is a prominent link which says change search. Karen hesitates and looks around the page. Her cursor is about 50pixels away from the link and her answer is “No, no I don’t think so. I’d just click the back button and start again”.

This is a perfect example of why to test designs and not built sites. As a the designer I am not offended or angry about Karen’s inability to find the link, I’m happy because I have a definite action for my design. Whether the link should be a link or a button is something that we debated and thought the link was the ideal option, a button would be far too prominent and interfere we the aesthetics of the page – wrong.

As a designer you can use user testing to your advantage, if you’re not sure about which way to go, ask people.  You don’t have to organise a big user test in a hotel.

Don’t ask stakeholders or in fact anyone connected to the project and especially not other designers or developers cause you’ll get a skewed perspective. Go and ask the receptionist and the cleaner show them design mock ups. You’ll get an honest unbiased nontechnical answer.

User testing your own designs is an eye opener give it a go.

Anger management

22 Sep

As creatives we are put on this earth to serve the aesthetic and commercial needs of others, and that can be frustrating.  Add to the mix the constant bartering and horsetrading over things that may seem trivial, and there are days when you wish for hometime when it’s only 11.30.  It can be really hard to remember that design is rarely the centre of anyone else’s passionate considerations!  For instance, today we spent some time with a third party company interested in building a service that we will white label.  We were talking look and feel, and more specifically which elements of our user experience are sacred, and which (if any) are negotiable.  I was trying to impress on them that we would be pragmatic, but that the work we’d put in to date had delivered benefits which we’d want to carry through to this new part of the site.  But I can see them getting ants in their pants….and when i mention involving a designer early doors, to guide their design, they utter the magic words ‘We’ve done most of it already (bzzzzzzt)….it will be fine once we get the images for the buttons (BZZZT!).  Fear grips me.  These people don’t understand the importance of the design.  They think a few coloured buttons will make it all ok.  Well, not the first time.

What made today different was that, instead of getting all grabby and anxious about the importance of design, I relaxed, and thought about it from their point of view.  They are consumed by their development.  They have a mega-tight deadline.  The mechanics of the website are the primary concern, and getting something delivered is the top priority.  Design is seen as the fluffy icing on top of the very substantial commercially important cake, and it will take more than a list of usability golden rules and a style guide to change their mind.  So for today, making it clear that we will be pragmatic, supportive and flexible, rather than critical and overly precious, was enough.  We can do some subtle design education as we go along…

Lazy design

21 Sep

Every designer looks to other sites for inspiration, and when time and budgets are tight, it is always tempting to take more than just inspiration from sites you know to be well-established.  However, the closer to the knuckle that ‘borrowing’ is, the more credibility you lose in doing it.  Take this example – price comparison site have simply picked up’s recently launched credit card channel and reskinned it with their style