Proven Need

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How to user test new designs

Seth Matisak

Head of Design @ Forward Partners

With new startups and, in turn, new competition seemingly popping up every day, it’s important your product is constantly improving and hitting all the right chords with your users. You can’t afford to build out features users have absolutely no use for. Starting the habit of user testing from the earliest of stages is vital so you don’t waste your biggest resource: time.

Put simply, if you take the time to design and build a feature that no one will use, you’ll waste time, confuse your customers and negatively affect conversion. If you’ve ever seen HBO’s Silicon Valley you’ll know that skipping user testing can have catastrophic consequences. :)

Key takeaways:

  • Understand the tools and prep you need for user testing; 
  • Let the user narrate their experience; 
  • Use open ended questions to gain valuable insight.

Before sitting down with anyone there a couple of things you need to sort out before you can test.

  1. Make sure you have an appropriate prototype to test. Depending on the complexity of the feature or site this could be a sketch on a piece of paper, or a wireframe built in any of the many prototyping tools out there these days (Marvel, InVision,… etc.). These tools are really intuitive and you can get more out of the user testing sessions when you have a prototype people can actually interact with.
  2. Have a way to video and record your session. Whether that is with a camera set up or just recording the screen and sound. You need to be able to look back at the footage and reference key points that users come up with. At the very least you can jot down notes but having the ability to record your user sessions will free you up to concentrate on what type of questions to ask them. This is also important so that you can share results with the rest of the team.
  3. Lastly, you need actual people to test with. These can be friends, friends of friends, family members, colleagues, strangers, customers, pretty much anyone that has no idea about the feature you are building. You need fresh eyes to see what you’ve been creating. Someone who hasn’t been working on it day in day out for the past few days.

Now that we have those things in place let’s get to testing.

Introduction, Overview & Background

Before showing your subject the new prototype you’ll want to make the participant feel at ease by explaining that you are not testing them or their abilities. Instead make it clear that you are testing the new prototype to gain insights on its performance and whether or not the designs are working as you intended them to.

Encourage them to think out loud as they navigate the site so you can gain insight into their decisions. Make it clear that there are no wrong answers and by speaking out loud we can better understand if they are able to use the prototype. This should help put users at ease. We need their narrative to help drive the user testing research.

Lastly, you’ll want to gain some quick insight on the person you’re interviewing to get a little background information about their web browsing habits, where they work, their hobbies, if they have any favourite sites etc.

What type of questions should you ask?

Start by keeping your questions open ended.

What do you think of this site?

What do you think the purpose of this site is?

What do you think you can do from here?

How do you find the layout of the site?

These are just a handful of examples but once you’ve done a few open ended general questions about the site, give the user a task.

For example, our team at Forward Partners recently re-designed The Path Forward. One of the main goals of the re-design was to improve page depth of the site. We spent some time designing a wireframe with easy-to-use navigation, loaded it in the prototyping tool Marvel and then asked users to navigate from the homepage to an article, then another, then a stage landing page. We gained invaluable insights which led to the current design you see today. As a result of our testing we were able to tweak the navigation some more and our page depth (page views per session) went up over 50%.

Now, as the user navigates and explores the website keep them engaged with more open ended questions.

What would you expect to happen when…?

Can you tell me what the page was about?

Does anything stick out to you?

Again, these are just a few examples to give you an idea of the type of questions to ask. The most important thing to remember is keep all your questions very open and vague. This will help the user stay true and reinforce there is no wrong answers.

Non-interactive prototypes can often reveal a lot of information. For example, if you were testing the function of a button but it didn’t actually do anything, you could ask the user: “What would you expect to happen if you click this button?”. This reveals what their expectation would be and helps in deciding what to build.

Remember, the goal of user testing is to gain insight on designs you think will improve your product. It allows you to prove or disprove any feature before you waste time and money building out sections, pages or sites in general. It’s a foolproof method to iterating and improving your product efficiently.

Do it, and do it often. You, your users and investors won’t be disappointed.

Check back soon for a look into how the user testing on The Path Forward shaped the overall visual identity of the new site.

Useful links


Seth Matisak

Head of Design @ Forward Partners

Seth brings 7 years of design experience from around the world including Washington DC, Cleveland, Ohio and Malta having won awards for his print and packaging designs. He has a strong passion for all things branding and helped maintain brand standards for world-wide corporations (Nestle, Nokia, John Deere, Kimberly Clark and Sherwin Williams) while also creating new and engaging brands for start-ups, city organisations and charities while his ability to transition his layout and branding skills to the digital world has resulted in clean, intuitive and modern web designs.

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