Why User Testing in the field is priceless for a Designer.

I’m a French web student from the school HETIC (Digital communication engineer’s Program) and I live in Paris. I’m doing a 6-month internship as a Design Intern at MakeReign in Cape Town, South Africa. Recently, I’ve had the chance to do some user testing in the field for a mobile application project.

Maud Rochel
Published in
8 min readOct 24, 2019


Khayelitsha — August 01, 2019

The project

Let’s talk about the project. Our mission was to redesign an application which already had more than 100 000 users. The application is dedicated to traders running little shops predominantly in South African townships, allowing them to sell basic services like electricity, airtime, data etc. using a digital device that prints tickets with barcodes. Our main goal was to improve the features, as well as the usability of the product to design a more intuitive interface for the traders.

Life in townships

Until the early 1990s, when South Africa became an inclusive democracy, non-white workers were forced to live outside the cities in residential areas known as townships. Townships were usually built on the periphery of towns and cities. Many people still live in those areas, lacking basic facilities such as running water or electricity. Whole families live together in tiny houses made of containers. They’ve had electricity and airtime in townships for a long time, so not such a new thing. It is only now that it gets easier to buy it at Spaza shops etc. Electricity, data, airtime etc. are available and can be bought prepaid at different shops in the area. The way these services are used and paid for is really different from the system I know, where we, for the most part, use a subscription model — I wouldn’t think of going to a store to buy a few kilowatt-hours of electricity for the evening.

Photo by Marc Steenbeke on Unsplash

The township of Khayelitsha

We conducted the first interview in the township of Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha is reputed to be the largest and fastest growing townships in South Africa. There are about 400,000 people that live in this area, with a crime rate that is only getting worse as population and poverty rates increase. Khayelitsha has a median average income per family of R20,000 ($1,872) a year compared to the City median of R40,000 ($3,743), making it one of the poorest areas in the city.

How this app can help them

The app we are designing enables users to sell and buy those services easily. Thanks to this little device bought by a small shop owner, people can go to their nearest grocery store and have the opportunity to purchase these services.

For the trader, it’s a way to improve his situation by earning more money. After adding money to their account they can start trading. For each sale, the trader receives a commission and makes a profit. Moreover, more customers visit their shop and purchase other items, improving their visibility in the township.

Adapt yourself to the situation

To create the first designs, we did some desk research aiming to find information about users, competitors… But we were facing a lack of information and data. We obviously examined the current application to identify its defects and possible improvements, based on the 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. But it was our way to imagine how to design interfaces and not the one of the users. In this particular case, we couldn’t just follow a UX process and simply apply what we had learned.

The best solution for us was to base our designs on assumptions and test what works and what doesn’t in the field. We decided to go into townships to talk to users and try to understand their way of thinking and how they use digital products.

Interview 1 : Testing to understand


First, we started by asking the users some contextual questions and questions around what bothered them in the current version of the app e.g. “Tell us the last time you had a problem doing this or this action”. Thanks to these interviews, we collected valuable feedback that helped us understand their way of thinking and their way of using the app.

Then, we did user tests with specific tasks — “Please, can you sell me this kind of service for R100?”.

The results were quite surprising. The features that I assumed would be the more complicated (swipe actions, close modals…) were actually basic actions for them and really natural. On the other hand, actions I use every day on my favorite applications were not used or understood at all. For example, 100% of the interviewees didn’t see the bottom navigation bar or didn’t understand the meaning of it.

So, we tried to understand why some actions were so natural for them while others weren’t.

Khayelitsha Township — July 23, 2019

The power of Design Language

The answer to this question lies in understanding how they used their mobile devices, if they had any. And the answer was unanimously “WhatsApp on Android”.

The next day back at the office, I did some research. At that moment, I understood the power of the Material Design System. All the actions that people understood quickly were based on the same way of designing interfaces. Now that we know which language our target market was used to, we can communicate with them in the right way.

First learning

This first experience of user testing in the township has taught me a lot about listening to people in order to understand them. It was very important to have a real interest in people who would use the product. The important difference in lifestyle meant that we couldn’t base our work on assumptions and on the way we use digital products ourselves.

This situation represents my definition of UX design: thinking and adapting yourself to new situations, rather than following a process of reflection and the use of tools.

Interview 2 : Testing to improve

One week later, we went back to the townships to test our designs and to get new insights.

Step 1 : Finding new insights

It was important to know our users better. We tried to focus on the slightest insight that the interviewees gave us. Any information, even if it didn’t seem important at the time, could make a difference later. The idea was to get to know the users, listen to them carefully and above all give them confidence to talk to us.

Pay attention to verbally and non-verbally details.

For example, by observing one of the interviewees in his shop, we noticed that he used a book to keep track of all his customers’ information (cellphone number, meter number…). We asked him why he didn’t use the Contact App of his device to do this. He simply didn’t know that there was a Contact App on the device and he didn’t know how to use it.

Insight : Some traders use a notebook to save their customers’ information.

Friction Point : They don’t know that they can use a Contact List on their device, separately from the app.

Solutions : Add a step in the on-boarding of the app to introduce this Contact List / include a Contact List directly in the app.

Step 2 : User testing

After the first round of user testing, we had improved all our designs based on the insights. One of our priorities during the second round of testing included testing the navigation bar, which had been a real problem during the first test.

On the left, it was the first navigation bar (iOS standard) and on the right our improvement after user testing (based on Material Design).

This time, we interviewed 5 traders for about 15 minutes each. Compared to the last test, we had defined the tasks better — with a more logical approach to the sequence / order of the tasks, following an interview guide.

The tests were very successful: we saw that the use of the sidebar navigation was rather natural, however we would need to make some changes to the wording of the application.

Step 3 : Iconography Test

We also decided to carry out an iconography test during these interviews. The idea was to get the users away from the screens and for them to only use their imagination and prior knowledge to create a product that suits them. To test their association between an icon and a word, we asked them to connect what belonged together using a pen and a printout with icons and words.

Interviewees doing the iconography test — August 01, 2019

New learnings

When conducting tests of this type, it is very important to make the interviewee feel comfortable, making them feel at ease with your presence and most importantly making sure they are not afraid of “failure”. During various tests, many people were afraid to press the “wrong” button and to make mistakes. It is really important to make them understand that if they are wrong, it is because we’ve made a mistake, not them.

Feeling good also means that there are not too many people around the interviewee. It shouldn’t be an interrogation, but an exchange between two or three people. This way, a direct relationship is established and the person has more opportunities to share their thoughts, feelings…

Unpack this messy treasure

When we went back to the office, we had a lot of insights to filter through. Every single word was important in order not to lose the information from the interviewees. We used this method to reason effectively.

It was necessary to reformulate the new insights and then to find the friction points for all of them. Then, we tried to find the best solutions to solve all these problems and ultimately to make the best product on the market.

The most important thing I learned

Sometimes, designers are obsessed with being right, sometimes out of pride, sometimes because they are convinced that what they think is true. This project taught me that the role of a designer is to look for the best solution rather than to be right. We don’t care who gave the right answer, we have to find the best answer together.

Big thanks to :

  • MakeReign, for allowing me to experience this incredible adventure, for trusting me and for helping me “grow up”.
  • Elize Van Staden, Project Manager at MakeReign, for organizing all these meetings with users and letting me express myself throughout the project.
  • Britta Graewe, UX Lead at MakeReign, for her valuable advice that has made me a better UX Designer.

Be sure to follow and connect with MakeReign on:

Website | Instagram | Dribbble | Facebook



Maud Rochel

Product Designer — Paris 11