Five simple solutions to overcome user testing barriers

You will learn a lot, and it will be incredibly painful, and not doing it has always been some of the biggest mistakes of my life and my career as a developer.
~ Aaron Patzer — founder, on user testing, at Startup Grind Auckland

In a knowledge economy, time is our most precious resource. Failing to user test prior to building and during the development cycle, is incredibly costly and time consuming. A staggering 50% of the time developers spend reworking solutions is avoidable through UX testing according to the Why Software Fails report. It was also found the cost of fixing an error after development is 100 times as high as that of fixing an error during development.

I may be preaching to the choir. If you’re working in an Agile development team, you will understand the value of user testing and how it helps build better products. Incorporating user feedback early will save time and money, allowing you to iterate rather than rework.

What may present a bigger struggle is getting buy-in for user testing beyond your own team. Without wider company and top-down support, it can be hard to get the true value for user testing, as adequate priority (and time) is not given to the process and even more frustratingly, the outcomes of testing may be overlooked.

Resistance to user testing can present itself in many types of companies, but often is the symptom for larger organisations such as enterprises or public sector. Multiple layers of bureaucracy may stand between the UX researcher and the ultimate decision makers. Even though by listening to users, you can get the most important feedback, often the voices of stakeholders and managers drown out this valuable information.

Cultivating a culture of user testing

Last week I attended a great Webstock workshop lead by Janine Gianfredi of the US Digital Services team. Coming from Google, she was recruited into a team tasked with helping other government agencies create better digital projects. Early on, the team created the Digital Services Playbook that starts with a commitment to user testing — understanding what people want.

The needs of people — not constraints of government structures or silos — should inform technical and design decisions. We need to continually test the products we build with real people to keep us honest about what is important. ~ Extract from the Digital Services Playbook

In the same week, I also attended a meetup on Content Strategy, again with a largely public sector audience. The stories from the trenches were not about how to do user testing, rather how to get user testing accepted beyond the digital or content team. Without this buy-in, user testing can be a frustrating process, further highlighting the issues rather than leading to solutions. In many cases, the stories were of despair, knowing that user testing should be a priority but facing an uphill battle to make it so. In the worst cases, testing was taking place but the results were ignored!

Do you often feel like the lone champion for user testing? Here are some ways to help user testing grow in importance in your company.

Problem 1: No budget for user testing

Solution: be creative with incentives

It can be assumed that user testing is a costly and lengthy process. However, it is possible to adjust the scope of testing to any budget, or lack of.

My advice is ask for forgiveness, not permission. If you haven’t got a budget for testing, start small and be creative. Get some testing underway and use the gathered information to prove the case for more testing budgets in the future.

Wellington electric company Flick often hangs out in local coffee shops, offering to pay for coffees in return for short user interviews. At SilverStripe, we’ve used merch and chocolates as small tokens of appreciation and they’re received well.

Think about your users, where you’d usually find them and what you can offer. For many users, the opportunity to improve a service or product they interact with often is a reward in itself. Especially if there’s a pain point for them!

Problem 2: User testing not valued

Solution: Start small and prove the worth

You can often learn as much from closely observing 5 users as 1,000 users. Start with a small number of participants and also an isolated area to test. Use small tests to gather information you can easily act on, for example, changing wording in a call-to-action to boost the conversion rate.

Starting small will allow you to measure and report on a few quick wins that prove the value of user testing. Use these small wins to build allies for user testing within your company.

Solution: Use video to create empathy

Videos can create an emotional response in a way that reports and interview transcripts never will. If you’re failing to get attention for user testing results, try filming some short (30–45 second) clips of users interacting with your product. Watching the struggle and hearing the frustration of a real user is a powerful way to demonstrate the value of user testing.

A powerful example is the user testing the US Digital Service team did for Veteran’s Affairs. They visited libraries and coffee shops to interview homeless veterans. It’s hard to watch the tests without developing empathy for Dominic, and feeling compelled to help him.

You can easily record a screen and audio with tools such as QuickTime. Have a play with the recording prior to testing to ensure things run smoothly.

Problem 3: Results ignored

Solution: Solve the biggest problems first

One of the hardest blockers to user testing is having results ignored. There’s no value to testing if the results are not acted on. To ensure that user testing results aren’t ignored, start with the biggest problems first. This may sound daunting but what I mean is the problems that have the biggest measurable results, conversion gains or bottom line revenue gains. Being able to quantify the ROI of UX improvements makes them far harder to ignore than vaguer “users will like us more” arguments.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk explains in this video on how to calculate the ROI of user testing. These ROI calculators also make this process easy. Look for areas you could improve that will have the greatest impact on your business — early candidates could include sign-up forms, upgrade pathways and support information (which can lower helpdesk calls).

Solution: Go to the top

In many organisations “ignorance is bliss” becomes the default and as a result of internal political, complacency or competing priorities, user testing results are cast aside.

While it’s a drastic measure, sometimes you need to take results to the top. In the case of the US Veteran’s Affairs testing, the US Digital Team went to the highest levels, the Department’s Secretary, with the videos. This allowed them to get traction for the prototype and gain top-down support.

Often the key to success is not to undermine your colleagues, rather push from the bottom and top of an organisation. In this way you not only get support from those implementing improvements, but those above them will prioritise the time to do so.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain

Become the champion for user testing in your organisation. Ask what user data supports the way you’re building a new feature. If it doesn’t exist, suggest ways to gather it. Challenge yourself to look for opportunities to incorporate user feedback into development cycles.

While getting buy-in for user testing can seem like an uphill battle, don’t give up! User testing not only saves time and money in development, it also has a far more important outcome — we can build products and websites that our users truly love.

Originally published at